Conroy attacks BitTorrent: Ruins Australia online

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[This article was first published in Crikey on Monday 5 January 2009, and the headline is theirs. Here it is for those folks too cheap-arsed to subscribe. I’ll re-post my other recent Crikey material soon.]

The biggest criticism of the Rudd government’s plan to centrally censor the internet — apart from it being ill-defined, secretive, a potential human rights abuse, a great way to screw up broadband speeds, poorly planned, way behind schedule and tackling the problem of child sexual abuse in completely the wrong way — is that it won’t work. As Crikey has reported several times before. None of the filters tested in the first half of 2008 could touch peer-to-peer (P2P) networks like BitTorrent, which is where The Bad Stuff lives.

Just before Christmas, Senator Conroy tackled that last bit by declaring in a single sentence on his new blog: “Technology that filters peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic does exist and it is anticipated that the effectiveness of this will be tested in the live pilot trial.” If so, it’s news to the ISPs who signed up. But then they haven’t been given official notification yet, and the trials were meant to start before Christmas. Ahem.

BitTorrent is easy to understand, provided you skip the brain-imploding technical details. Instead of everyone downloading the same big media file from a central server, causing congestion, the file is split up into lots of little pieces. As soon as you’ve download one random piece, your computer becomes a server, swapping the pieces you already have for the missing pieces downloaded by other users — your peers. Automatically. Eventually everyone gets all of the pieces, with the work shared amongst all the participants.

BitTorrent is incredibly efficient. As we reported in March, Norway’s national broadcaster NRK used BitTorrent to distribute a full HD TV program to 80,000 people for just US$350 in bandwidth and storage charges.

Yesterday [Sunday], Crikey showed NRK project manager Eirik Solheim reports of Conroy’s plan.

“Wow!” he said. “A minister that is actively working to limit your country’s ability to distribute information and compete globally… If he plans to block BitTorrent traffic in general that would be a serious limitation to people’s ability to distribute content, creativity, ideas and information.”

Sure, P2P has a bad rep. The Bad Guys use it to distribute illegal pornography, and ordinary folks use it to bypass the slow, old-fashioned distribution mechanisms of the music, TV and movie industries — committing copyright naughtiness along the way. But P2P also distributes open source software and other legitimate material.

As Solheim puts it, “Blocking BitTorrent because pirates also use it to distribute illegal content would be like blocking all roads because people drive too fast and criminals transfer illegal goods.”

Selectively filtering BitTorrent “sounds very difficult”, says Solheim. Indeed, all child pornographers need do is encrypt their files and distribute the passwords another way — just as they already do. The filter won’t know what’s in the files.

Solheim calls BitTorrent “a very robust and effective distribution method, especially good for TV stations with popular content.” With Australia’s broadband development already well behind the pace, we can’t afford to cripple an efficient distribution mechanism.

25 Replies to “Conroy attacks BitTorrent: Ruins Australia online”

  1. About ten years ago I was involved in a scrap with the censor over the censorship of CD-ROMs. For those that don’t remember they fell outside the censor until a lot of porn appeared in the country. The government rushed ahead and imposed the same censorship on CD-ROMs except they declared the interactive nature made them more dangerous and everything classified at one level on video would go up a classification on CD. Then they arbitrarily said any nudity would be adults only and all the attorneys general banned AO CD-ROMs.

    This stupidity meant that any education based nudity i.e. this is what a penis looks like was banned. So we fought the issue and lost. They government and the supporters fell back on the same worthy nonsense I’m hearing regurgitated today. The % of the population involved in this is tiny and the average person just nods when people say “there is too much porn” no minister wants to be seen as supporting porn and the entire debate gets dumbed down to the lowest common denominator and the anti camp know this well.

    The government promised this in the election to counter the last government stupid filter and are going to deliver something come hell or high water. Until there are votes attached to this they’ll force it through and for the people who don’t understand it in the first place, they’ll never understand the compromise made and the government will ensure everyone they’re safe.

    It’s time to find a way to galvanise the average punter.

  2. Just to be clear — “filtering BitTorrent traffic” does not necessarily equate to “blocking all BitTorrent traffic”. I guess anything’s possible given the quality of information that Conroy has given us, but to me his statement could be read as blocking only “bad” BitTorrent stuff and allowing all the Linux ISOs to continue to flow unabated.

    1. What the hell are you talking about? If you block torrents, you block them all. You can’t differentiate between what’s good and what’s “bad”. They all use the same protocol.

      1. @Crue: I think you’ll find that Alastair’s statement that “‘filtering BitTorrent traffic’ does not necessarily equate to ‘blocking all BitTorrent traffic’. I guess anything’s possible” is about what Senator Conroy was intending to mean, not what is technically feasible.

        More recent statements suggest that he doesn’t so much mean “blocking” BitTorrent in the sense of a firewall, but “attacking” it in the sense of “being able to do something about it”. This may not solely be a technical system — and indeed the mistake that critics often make is to think that everything has to be technological.

        For examples, Brilliant Digital Entertainment‘s Global File Registry stores hashes of the files of copyrighted material which are being traded on P2P networks. The copyright-holder’s people join the networks, watch for the files being traded, and record the IP addresses of the participants — and they issue infringement notices to the ISPs. BDE have been touting this as a way of detecting the transmission of child abuse material.

        Of course there are a number of flaws to this plan, but I’ll leave explication of those for others for now.

  3. Alastair:

    One needs to consider the practicalities too.

    The Government is big on Commercial Off The Shelf (COTS) systems. Conroy specifically mentioned the desirability of the “PC sized boxes” available from censorware vendors when he was talking about the issue in October.

    There are no commercial off the shelf systems that can look inside a torrent datastream and decide whether or not it’s on a blacklist.

    The alternatives are to permit all torrents, or interfere with all torrents. It’d probably be nice for the Minister if there was some kind of middle ground, but there isn’t, and there’s unlikely to be in the future because the market for products which selectively interfere with discrete torrents is nonexistent, so the R&D that’d be required is never going to happen.

    (to say nothing of the fact that the emergence of any product that molests with torrents will simply cause the emergence of a new non-BitTorrent protocol which does the same thing in a way which renders the censors impotent: Interference with Napster begat Gnutella, interference with Gnutella begat eDonkey 2000, interference with eDonkey begat BitTorrent, interference with historical BitTorrent begat encrypted BitTorrent, emergence of Sandvine systems on Comcast’s network which send TCP RSTs to kill BitTorrent sessions begat countermeasures within BitTorrent to recover from TCP RSTs, any bets on what’ll happen next? Proponents of these systems live in a fantasy world where the thing they’re trying to stop is completely static, and their opponents are sitting dumbly on their hands waiting to be suppressed. Reality can be a bitch sometimes)

    As usual, every time Conroy opens his mouth to say something about this he embarrasses himself. Perhaps DBCDE did him a favour by shutting down his blog on the day after he brought up P2P filtering 🙂

    – mark

    1. No need to bet on what will happen next with BitTorrent.

      The next version of uTorrent (currently in Alpha) supports the new BitTorrent over UDP protocol (“uTP”, the micro transport protocol). This will effectively make all known forms of blocking, throttling and filtering completely obsolete.

      Don’t you just love progress 🙂

  4. @Simon: Thanks for that history, and for reminding us that the rules for censorship online and in interactive media were made arbitrarily by politicians in response to a moral panic. We saw a similar example in the Bill Henson case where the words “naked” and “child” has Certain People frothing at the mouth — when the Australian Censorship Classification Board rated the imagery PG.

    Finding a way to mobilise the punters will be difficult here. The debate has already been framed as a “filter” creating a “clean” feed, which automatically makes any opponents of the idea “dirty”. I’ve tried to promote “Conroy’s Rabbit-Proof Firewall”, using ridicule rather than a direct attack, but I’m not sure it’ll be that effective.

    @Alastair: Correct, Conroy’s single sentence is ambiguous. However given Mark Newton‘s solid argument — thank you, Sir! — I’m guessing someone answered the question “Can you deal with P2P?” with a “Yes” without working through the subtleties.

    For those of us who’ve been part of (or at least witness to) the continuous arms race between the Good Guys and Bad Guys on the Internet these past couple of decades, it does get frustrating to see expertise ignored in favour of sales hype from the snake-oil brigade.

    @Frank Filippone: Exactly. And as someone else pointed out, when we all move to IPv6 with every packet encrypted, everything becomes difficult to “filter”. It’s like trying to stop influenza by going after each virus particle individually with a fly-swat.

    1. Your mention of IPv6 deserves further expansion.

      I’m yet to find any COTS products which support IPv6 at all.

      Not even for HTTP. None, nada, zilch. No support at all.

      Depending on the product’s design, it’ll either pass it through unmolested as unrecognized traffic, or fail to forward it due to lack of v6 support in the protocol stack. The “bump in the wire” DPI boxes that try to tease apart Ethernet frames tend to fall into the first category, the transparent proxy servers that involve themselves in the TCP datastream tend to fall into the second.

      So by means of your technology choices, you get to choose: Do you want to break the censorship or the Internet? 🙂

      It’s not a question of whether or not the packets are encrypted, it’s just plain and simple lack of support for even the bare possibility.

      There is no possible way that ACMA couldn’t have already known this, since they’ve clearly been talking extensively with vendors. So I really have to wonder about why they mentioned the “desirability” of IPv6 trials in their technical testing framework. Par for the course from a bunch of clowns who only barely know how to spell IPv6, much less deploy it.

      – mark

      1. Why should consumers be allowed to make technology choices that put them and our great commonwealth in danger?

        I await the Internet Transport Reform (Dangerous Packets) Act 2012.

  5. @Mark Newton: It’d be interesting to know who in the Minister’s office actually has technical knowledge of how the Internet works. It all sounds like they’re being briefed by vendors — because vendors have the money to employ professional marketers and write well-rehearsed pitches, and can write off external viewpoints as uninformed critics and underlings.

    @Phillip Molly Malone: The human right I’m talking about is freedom of speech, which during World War II was adopted by the Allies as one of the Four Freedoms which differentiated them from the oppressive regimes they were fighting, and which later became part of the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

    Senator Conroy, Bernadette McMenamin and censorship-fan Clive Hamilton try to tag anyone introducing freedom of speech into this discussion as a promoter of child abuse, each for various reasons — and I can see a whole essay in that alone. “We must protect the children” is a great piece of camouflage. But there is a risk.

    Here’s why…

    When we make laws and build bureaucracies and systems, we do so not just for whatever the government says publicly it’s going to use them for now, but also for whatever any conceivable future government might want to use them for in the future. Time and time again, governments have demonstrated that they’re willing, even keen to encourage this sort of scope creep. Once the technology and staff are in place, it’s easy to add related tasks.

    A system to monitor phone calls might be introduced to stop “the terrorists”, but once it’s in place its use can be extended to less and less important crimes — to the point where in the UK now local governments can order a phone tap on someone suspected of illegally dumping rubbish. A crime, yes, but hardly mass murder.

    Conroy’s “plan”, at least what’s been spelt out, has all the key elements of a centralised speech-suppression system precisely like China has deployed.

    • Technology will centrally block certain material.
    • The technology is being tested for its ability to block all sorts of material, not just the ACMA blacklist.
    • The list of what’s blocked is ill-defined and can be added to at the government’s whim. Conroy has repeatedly said it’s “only” about the ACMA blacklist. But he’s also spoken about potential extensions to that list, used undefined terms like “harmful” and “inappropriate” to describe that extra material, and continuously avoided saying precisely what the intention is. Also, he has misrepresented the ACMA blacklist by saying it’s “mainly” child abuse and other illegal material, but analysis has shown that legal material can and does end up on the list.
    • The list of what’s blocked is secret. There’s even specific Freedom of Information legislation to preserve its secrecy!
    • Items may be added to the blacklist because they “potentially” break the rules, not because they’ve been proven to break the rules.
    • There is no right of appeal and no process for dealing with material which is incorrectly blocked.

    A dangerous machine is being built. Senator Conroy assures us it’s about protecting the children. But there are no safeguards that the machine won’t be used for something else — indeed by its very nature it could easily be used for something else and the government could just deny it.

    It’s also easy to demonstrate that “protecting the children” is more effectively done by funding education and policing, and by helping parents make their own decisions, not by this sort of dangerous machine.

    Conroy seems to be saying, “Well, let’s just start building is, testing it, and see how we go.” And of course, should it be built, the world won’t end immediately, critics like me will be ridiculed as scaremongers and it’ll all be forgotten when the next football star gets caught with a prostitute. But the machine will still be there, ready to be used.

    I say we don’t let them start building it at all.

  6. Do you see that your using the Howard/Bush terriorism is bad argument against the Filter?

    The filter tier 1 is to block illegal and inappropriate (yes, I would like them to drop this last wording as it give people like you a chance to use the HBT tactics) material.

    If you don’t trust that government, that’s fair enough but they’re not going to take away freedom of speech to quiet detractors. They will for things people think shouldn’t be illegal but are illegal (i.e. Talk of how to commit euthanasia (note that is HOW to commit it and NOT the discussion of whether it should be legal or not)) but to say they shouldn’t use the filter for that would be somewhat equivalent to arguing for abolishment of the speed limits because some people want to speed!


    1. The discussion of whether or not euthanasia should be legal is adult content that is not permissible under MA15+ classification. The internet under Conroy is classified at no higher than MA15+, so all “Adult Concepts” are illegal to discuss without age verification proving age of 18 years or above. This naturally bars all high school students from studying current affairs or history.

      1. Do you have a source on euthanasia discussion being MA15+ classified? Just for interest sake!
        If it is the case, kids in year 11 and 12 would be the only ones able to study this anyway as there would be 15 year olds in all other classes so I assume MA15+ material couldn’t be taught either!

        So again, if this is the case, its the Net being brought in line with the rest of media and again if you have an issue with the underlying classification argue that not that the net should have different rules.

        1. @Phillip Molly Malone: Ian may have linkage to the decisions relating to euthanasia, but a search in Hansard and/or AustLII will soon turn up the relevant documentation. In any event, the most comprehensive and well-researched resource on Australia’s censorship rules, offline as well as online, is Irene Graham’s

          One point you’re missing when you say Conroy’s plan brings the Internet “in line with the rest of the media” isn’t actually true.

          With, say, a TV program that’s MA15+ it still goes to air — just tagged as such and after 9.30pm, and parents can decide whether to allow their children to watch it. A cinema showing an MA15+ film doesn’t let in 10yo kids but anyone 15 or older is free to go in.

          With the censorship of the Internet reducing the entire internet to MA15+, then no-one gets to see the perfectly-legal material, adult or child. This is a fundamental difference. Even if such a system is opt-out, it still requires you to register in some way to view perfectly legal material. That’s a significant change being able to view it unmonitored.

        2. @Phillip Molly Malone: As I suspected, the best source was (as bloody always) Irene Graham’s

          [Senator Conroy’s term] “euthanasia websites” is vague and misleading terminology which misrepresents Commonwealth law: the Criminal Code Amendment (Suicide Related Material Offences) Act 2005. That legislation does not make websites “illegal”, it criminalises use of a carriage service (telecommunications/Internet) for specified purposes with specified intent, and it does not prohibit use of a carriage service to engage in public discussion or debate about euthanasia or suicide; or advocate reform of the law relating to euthanasia or suicide; unless the person has specified intent beyond such discussion/advocacy. Refer to the Act for details.

          It would however be very concerning if ACMA were to start applying the criteria in that Act, rather than a court of criminal law as intended by the Parliament. It is not known whether that is the Labor Government’s intent in relation to its filtering/blocking plan.

          So Ian Woolf is slightly wrong. It’s not an MA15+ classification issue but a “use of communications carriage service” issue. Either way, the existence of this illegal material on an overseas site can now, already, cause it to be added to the ACMA blacklist.

        3. @Mike: Not an overly-simplistic point? I don’t know that the Liberals are very good at accepting being wrong either. Trying to imagine Tony Abbott or Malcolm Turnbull conceding defeat makes my brain burst.

          This might be my bias. I’ve written elsewhere that I think contemporary politics has gone beyond one-dimensional Left vs Right analysis, even when it’s dressed up as Socialism vs Capitalism or most other -isms. Plus I have trouble assigning intent to abstract concepts. YMMV.

  7. @Phillip Molly Malone: You say:

    Do you see that your using the Howard/Bush terrorism is bad argument against the Filter?

    Nope, you’ve lost me there. Care to spell out the steps in more detail?

    As for trusting the government, as I say, it’s also about trusting all potential future governments. Things can change rapidly in only a decade or two. Mentioning German, Italy and Japan in this context is a cliché, but nevertheless true. Maybe those with better History than me could suggest less-obvious examples.

    1. No worries.

      Bush and Howard bring in new laws (phone tapping, detention, etc) and blame it on terriorism. Your arguing don’t bring in regulations as there is a chance of government abusing it.

      Now you over look the fact that if a government did that:
      a) They would/could be voted out
      b) You could protest it!

      1. @Phillip Molly Malone: I think I see where you’re coming from with the comparison to anti-terrorism legislation, but I’m not sure the analogy is a valid one. I’ll need to think about that a bit more. Or not.

        Your suggestion that if the government abuses the censorship then we can vote them out or protest it. But by then the abuse will have already happened. With a secretive censorship regime — and remember that the ACMA blacklist is both secret and protected by special FOI legislation — we’d have to: find out that the censorship is, in fact happening; successfully vote out the government when there may well be other political issues that sway the vote in other directions; make sure the new government actually repeals the legislation; and so on. My risk assessment is that we don’t give them that power in the first place.

        There’s nothing wrong with a government having power X per se, but only if there are appropriate checks and balance, appeals processes and so on. Conroy’s plan has none of these things.

        My analogy: We can give someone a gun, and hope they don’t misuse it. If they do misuse it, you say, we can always take the gun back. But by then they’ve already shot someone, and they still have a gun that makes my bargaining… difficult. I say don’t give them the gun to start with.

  8. Glad that there are many people like you around making the case. I laughed at the Dunning-Kruger Effect. I just have an instinctive distrust of governments seeking to control and manage things. I would prefer that fools leave things well alone and leave it to people who know what they are doing like the ISPs themselves.

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