New Zealand’s Web Filter

The New Zealand Government has apparently already been blocking access to some child porn sites, and are now expanding the budget to filter more sites:

The Government is spending $150,000 on website “filtering” software, outraging some bloggers who say the move amounts to censorship of the internet.

Since 2007 the Department of Internal Affairs’ Censorship Compliance Unit has worked with a small group of internet service providers on a “trial” project to block access to websites distributing child pornography.

The project, using hardware and software supplied by a Swedish technology company, thwarts access to more than 7000 websites known to offer child sexual abuse material.

If computer users subscribed to the ISPs involved in the trial – which now include TelstraClear, ihug, Watchdog and Maxnet – attempt to access sites on the DIA’s blacklist they are re-directed to a message explaining the site has been blocked.

Until now the DIA’s filtering project has been run on a shoestring Budget of $2000 or $3000 a year, but the department won $150,000 in this year’s Budget to buy software to expand the system beyond a trial. The money was part of a $661,000 Budget increase for “censorship enforcement activity”. (…)

In his blog, Beagle wrote he was concerned there was no “external oversight” of websites added to the department’s blacklist.

“It is being implemented in a very ‘under the radar’ way so as to avoid the fuss that has been raised in other countries such as Australia,” he said.

“If we are going to implement internet filtering I believe it should be done openly and through law.”

Beagle also said the filtering scheme was not very effective because it relied on DIA staff manually adding websites to be filtered and it was “relatively easy for motivated users to circumvent” the filtering process.

Mauricio Freitas, the Wellington-based founder of popular technology website Geekzone, also blogged about his concerns there was no oversight to the filtering process, meaning it could be extended beyond blocking child porn sites.

“[T]here isn’t a publicly available list of blacklisted websites, and no guarantees that a secret meeting between government agencies wouldn’t in the future add other ‘categories’ to this list,” he said.

Indeed. Giving the state new technical powers of repression, even if they promise not to use them for evil now, is always dangerous. We’re never more than one good panic away from totalitarianism. I would be willing to bet at even odds that,  if continued, the project will be used to block non-child porn sites at some point over the next decade.

Government Investment in Broadband

The New Zealand Government is set to spend around $1.5 billion in an effort to improve New Zealand’s (relatively poor) broadband capacity by laying fibre cables. I worry it’s making the mistake the US Government narrowly avoided one hundred years ago:

“That it is not feasible and desirable at the present time for the Government to purchase, to install, or to operate pneumatic tubes,” is one of the most important conclusions reached by a commission appointed by the Postmaster General to inquire into the feasibility and desirability of the purchase and operation by the Government of pneumatic tubes in the cities where the service is now installed…

The pneumatic tube service is in operation at present in New York, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, St. Louis, and Brooklyn…

The report commends the service as an important auxiliary for the rapid transmission of first-class mail and special delivery mail. It however, adds these conclusions:

That pneumatic tube service appears to be still in an experimental condition, although progress has been made toward the development of a fixed standard of machinery;
That with the above reservation the regularity and efficiency of the tube service are commendable.

Now, I don’t think our modern electronic intertubes will go the way of the pneumatic, but I do think it’s entirely plausible that fibre will become completely obsolete at some point in the not too distant future. I don’t know what might replace it (wi-fi mesh networks, perhaps?) but I don’t think the government can confidently assume the fibre will continue to be useful enough to justify investment.

As it happens I don’t think government investment in broadband is at all justified.  Isn’t this just thinly-veiled redistribution from those who don’t like the internet to those who do? It’s not a public good, and while there are some positive externalities from increased business activity due to lower input prices, there is no reason to single out any particular input. Why not subsidize stationary, since virtually all businesses use pens and staplers? The answer, of course, is that broadband is sexy.