(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
We don't like to get into politics in this space, but since the Internet is at the heart of Israeli politics this week, a word or two on the government's plans to impose "top down" Internet censorship are in order.
And in a word or two: It's not going to work.
As you may have heard, the Knesset will soon debate a bill submitted by Shas MKs to require ISPs to supply users with Internet filters - either on individual PCs or on the Web, via the ISP's portal.
Users would have to specifically ask to be permitted to connect to sites that would otherwise be censored, and violations of the law by ISPs would carry heavy fines - an important addition to the bill that will ensure service providers take the law, and their responsibility, very seriously.
It's no surprise that it was Shas MKs, with their general haredi suspicion of the Web, who came up with this idea. But you don't have to be haredi to be offended by so many of the sites you come across on a daily basis. Even innocent looking Web pages can be earning their advertising money from less than savory pop-up links. Almost all PCs, in fact, already have "censorship software" installed on their browsers - in the form of pop-up blockers. So, on paper, the bill on limiting Web use sounds like a good idea.
But the challenges to this bill, both legal and technical, are going to be too formidable to overcome. And in the end, anyone of any age, who is interested in getting past the filter, is going to be able to, no matter how hard ISPs try to prevent them.
Now don't get me wrong, I am not at all in favor of kids being able to surf unattended to any porn site on the planet, and I don't have a problem with parents limiting their children's use of the computer altogether. And I'm on the side of any parent that limits use of the Net by their kids to homework or allows them one hour a day or so to play on-line games - especially when that hour is a replacement for that other WWW (worldwide waste of time) - TV.
But if you want to examine a test case of just how effective top-down Web censorship is, just think of a typical office where users are restricted or limited in their use of the Internet for personal surfing.
The truth is that most managers know that in a world where proxy sites like http://www.workfriendly.net/ exist (this one masks the page to look like a Word 2003 document), there is almost no hope of totally preventing "illicit" surfing. So instead of forbidding Internet use altogether, they try to set rules, or implement performance standards that will ensure that real work gets done, along with "fun surfing." Of course, the boss could go all the way and install filters on workers' PCs, tabulate the links on the workstation with the ones on the firewall's logs, have the system administrator write a script that will do a trace on each link to see exactly where it goes - and generate a report that will give a clear picture of who surfed where, giving the boss the ammunition s/he needs to punish offenders. But we've got a business to run, the point of which is to produce work that makes money, not to be policemen, and that's why the government's latest and greatest idea won't work.
Besides the legal challenges to the collection of data on individual user activity, where users are identified individually and specifically (as opposed to aggregately); besides the unsavory group that Israel will be joining in pro-actively preventing and potentially punishing "illegal" Web use (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, China etc.); and besides the ability by almost anybody to do an end-run around site blocking, via a proxy, or following the useful advice at sites like http://www.peacefire.org (I guess the Peacefire site will be on the blocked list), ISPs just don't have the personnel to keep track of what everybody is doing on the Web at all times - paying a staff dedicated to rooting out violators and enforcing the law would bankrupt service providers.
Thus, I would urge any MK, government official, Shas member or concerned parent to review an article I wrote last year about this very issue (http://digital.newzgeek.com/110706-koshernet.html). Basically, I argued that a much more effective way to protect kids, individuals or whole communities from their surfing selves is to forgo the censorship route and forget about dumping the problem in the lap of Net Nannies, Cyber Patrollers or, in this case, the government. Instead, concerned citizens can create their own neighborhood network (a neighborhood being as small as an apartment block or courtyard) and connect to the Net via a proxy cache server.
As many of us realize, we don't connect directly to "the Internet," especially when the pages we seek are on servers on the other side of the world; the packet traffic would slow things down to a crawl. ISPs, corporate Internet infrastructures, and even small businesses use a cache proxy server, that downloads Web pages of frequently used sites to a local server. When a workstation or local user requests a page from that site, they get it from the cache on the proxy, ensuring that the page displays quickly in their browser. This is ideal for maybe 90% of the sites on the Net, which get updated maybe once a day - so even the proxy doesn't have to work too hard. Instead, it can reserve its computing power to download fast-updating sites, like news pages.
One of the problems with top-down government mandating of what a "clean" Internet is supposed to look like is going to be the impossibility of agreeing on "community standards." There is no way the proposed committee, made up of Mks, industry officials, civic and religious leaders and ordinary citizens is going to be able to come up with a list of sites that everyone is going to be happy with. A site like http://www.teenwire.com/ is probably going to play well in places like Ramat Aviv, but maybe not so well in Bnei Brak.
But with a local cache proxy serving up pages, each individual community gets to feel comfortable with its level of Web commitment. If parents in Jerusalem want to limit their kids' Internet use to math homework pages and sites with on-line shiurim, then that's what they should be able to do. If on-line sex education is "kosher" for families in another community, then that's something for to decide - and monitor.
Under this scheme, the server's administrator - as instructed by the community group's board of directors - includes in the server's cache just the pages and sites approved for use by the community. Users connected to the proxy use it as their Internet gateway and DNS server - meaning that all Internet access is conducted via the proxy. As long as users connect to that proxy, they will only be able to access the specific sites that the proxy holds. Any other page will be inaccessible - as if it doesn't exist. Since all filtering/blocking is done on the server (which can take care of pop-up blocking, viruses etc, as well), the only way miscreants will be able to change settings is by hacking into the server - and with a pool of 50 or so families to choose from, it shouldn't be too difficult for the administrator to figure out who's responsible.
Here's my idea for an alternative bill to be presented to the Knesset: Let the government fund education for local neighborhood volunteers willing to take on the job of running their community server in Linux system administration, and especially in cache server administration using programs like Squid (http://www.squid-cache.org/) - both open source, easy and cheap to set up (i.e. less expensive for the government, since both Linux and Squid are free).
In addition, let the bill require that Bezeq give to local community groups that set up proxy cache servers discounts on the "direct pipe" E1 connection that can ensure fast connections to the proxy for users. The proxy makes its connections via the E1, downloading pages it's supposed to cache, and users connect to it via regular ADSL connections. Ditto for ISPs; have the law require discounts for community proxy server connections (they can charge regular price to end-users, as they do now). E1 connections start at NIS 2,500 a month, so a little political intervention in that department might help.
I hereby offer my proposal for free to any Knesset member who wishes to come up with a system that will truly be effective in blocking sites for users interested in controlling the Web's influence on their kids' lives. I'll even help the brave MK write the bill! Of course, this idea hands the responsibility for community standards back to the community, thereby obviating the need for the government to do the work - which any good politician knows is the key to showing just how much their constituents need them. But I think we can all agree there are plenty of other tasks for them to attend to - they should feel confident enough to leave Internet censorship where it belongs, and still feel needed.