Mark Newton: the man who saved the internet
Thursday January 01st 2009, 10:49 am

For those four Australian internet users who are not up to speed on Rudd’s plan to enforce mandatory content filtering, let’s recap:

* During the HoWARd regime, ‘NetAlert’ filtering software, for installation on the PCs of residences with children, is offered at no cost to users. Millions are spent, yet the takeup rate was almost nil. It’s obvious that few users want it.

* Prior to the 2007 Federal elections, Labor proposed an optional filtered ‘clean feed’ as an election promise.

* Almost a year into the Rudd government, the goal posts got moved- suddenly, the filter is no longer optional. All internet feeds are to be subject to mandatory filtering at the ISP level. There will be an optional, stricter ‘child’ level filter for those subscribers who wish to opt in. Peter Garrett’s comment that once elected, Labor would ‘change everything‘ was beyond prescient.

* The Australian government blacklist is to be kept secret from users. We don’t even know what will be blocked. However, the blacklist will have to be made available to all Australian ISPs. The chance of the blacklist being leaked is not as much ‘high,’ as ‘absolutely certain.’ Witness the leaking of the banlists of Denmark (blocks a lot of ordinary porn sites which market images of 25 year old women in pigtails as ‘teens’) and Thailand, which criminalises criticism of the Thai monarchy.

* Closed-circuit test results of Labor’s proposed filter are leaked to the media. The most effective filter, the one which stopped the greatest amount of ‘objectionable’ traffic while falsely blocking the fewest number of unobjectionable sites, is found to slow access times by up to 87%.

* Goal post shift #2: Senator Conroy is flummoxed by critics who claim that Labor’s filtering scheme will only address HTTP traffic, not P2P file sharing, the mode via which the vast majority of child porn material is trafficked, per Australian law enforcement. Conroy, not given to explaining himself, pipes up and claims that Labor’s filter will in fact block ‘objectionable’ P2P traffic. Conroy gives no explanation as to the technical means by which this will be done, despite most P2P users encrypting all traffic by default.

* Conroy has also not addressed the matter of filtering encrypted traffic, either via HTTPS or P2P. If you’re going to filter traffic against a blacklist, you have to know what’s in the packets you’re filtering. Any effective filter will have to be able to decrypt such secure traffic on the fly (which not even the US CIA nor NSA can do, given the ready availability of strong encryption). To any system monitoring internet traffic, all encrypted packets look the same- unreadable. If a filtering system somehow is developed which can decrypt and filter encrypted traffic, it will render legitimately private encrypted traffic, such as internet banking and online purchases, as public as plaintext. So far, Australian banks have not addressed this matter with their online customers, claiming that the filter has not yet been implemented and thus they have nothing to say on the issue.

Enter Mark Newton. A network engineer for Internode and IIA board member by day, censorship-fighting superhero on his own time by night, Newton has been personally and professionally attacked by the Rudd government for his vocal personal opposition to Labor’s proposed filtering scheme. Belinda Dennett, a policy wonk for Conroy, tried to bully Newton by writing to the IIA, ostensibly to establish ‘whether his views are consistent with the policies of the IIA. Dennett also demanded that her concerns be passed on to Newton’s employer, Internode, presumably in the hopes they would force him to shut up. Bad idea. Really bad. Newton’s response was to criticise the filtering plan even more strongly- and publicly. Dennett should have been apprised of an old quote from another Mark: Never pick a fight with a man who buys his ink by the barrel. I got news for Labor, Newton’s ink is considerably less expensive than Twain’s ever was.

Pithy, to the point and a much better writer than anyone ever needs to be, Newton has been interviewed by just about every major news op on the matter. Newton has even met with Labor pol Kate Ellis, who can’t be bothered to read more about her party’s unworkable filtering scheme than what the Minister for Prevention of Communications puts out in press releases, which doesn’t amount to much in Australian media. You can find lots of quotes from Conroy in foreign news media stories but invariably, Australian news ops end their entries with ‘the minister was unavailable for comment.’ If Ms Ellis wants a long term career in politics, she’s going to have to learn not to attempt to defend the indefensible and to acquire some knowledge of her subject matter before attempting comment, most certainly before confronting someone as knowledgeable on the subject matter as Newton.

Labor’s main response to filter critics is to damn them as being in favour of child pornography. Conroy has outright lied to Parliament regarding the nature of the Labor filtering plan, comparing it to schemes in other countries. Newton has fully refuted Conroy’s international comparisons and has pointed out Conroy’s attempt to mislead Parliament in no uncertain terms, but we have yet to see a motion raised to censure Conroy.

Newton’s objections to Labor’s censorship propositions are as follows, as he wrote in a followup letter to Minister Ellis:

* The government has failed to identify a need for this policy

* In the unlikely event that its implemented perfectly, it will enable child abuse

* Even if there was a need, the government has failed to demonstrate that this solution is wanted by the public

* Even if the public wanted this solution, it wont work

* Even if it could work, its too expensive

* Even if it wasnt too expensive, itll be implemented poorly

These are the absolute basics which must be understood by Labor before they sally forth, well beyond the fact that censorship is repugnant in any democracy. If implemented, aside from confronting the considerable ire of Australian internet users, and presuming it somehow becomes technically possible to implement, Labor is going to have to answer regarding how their system will not break the security of legitimate uses of encryption, like internet banking and retailing. At this moment, the only way to filter encrypted communications is to block ALL of it, which will cripple internet commerce.

Some (exceedingly rare) supporters of Labor’s proposed scheme claim that ‘filtering works in China,’ as if that’s supposed to be a real confidence builder. In fact, Chinese internet users commonly circumvent the Great Firewall at will and as a matter of course. Newton notes that if the Chinese firewall system works at all, it is because it is enforced at the end of the barrel of a gun, with numerous less-than-technically-savvy Chinese internet dissidents being apprehended and summarily executed every year. Until Labor is willing to take a few filter dodgers out and publicly shoot them, anyone and everyone will bypass the filter through simple and available means like VPN and Tor, rendering filtering fully moot, no matter how many millions are wasted on it.

The long threatened live trial of the filtering scheme, originally scheduled to begin over the Christmas holiday, has mysteriously been delayed. There’s ZERO question in my mind that this is directly due to pressure applied by Mark Newton. Such an unexplained delay is nothing short of the first step toward Labor quietly slinking away from this misguided idea.

If Labor still want to get their filtering plan up, they’ve got an awful lot of convincing of the public to do. Conroy has to date deliberately avoided public comment on this issue. So, let Conroy start his sales pitch by fully explaining how he plans to make this scheme work- and why we need it. SBS have a program called Insight, where issues are debated by newsmakers. This would be an ideal forum for Senator Conroy to attempt to educate Mark Newton. You can make just such a suggestion on the Insight website.

At the end of the day, Labor serves at the will of the people. I’d like to welcome Senator Conroy to Australia, a downright liberal democracy, where legislating morality is roughly as well received as your average fart in an elevator. Labor’s censorship tomfoolery has so far been almost as celebrated as Fred Nile’s hilarious plan to ban bare boobies at Bondi.

While Labor’s internet filtering plan has been public knowledge for quite some time, many savvy users have refrained from public protest for the simple sake that any filter is so easily beaten- why invest the effort? I’ve only recently jumped in the fray, mainly after trialling VPN and Tor and have found that they would introduce at least as much speed reduction as a government filter.

Dear Messrs Rudd & Conroy, here’s the nut. You can back off this misguided nonsense- or it’s going to be total war. Aussie internet users absolutely won’t let you talk about any other issue until you publicly announce abandonment of this proposed filtering scam.

If Labor are dying to spend money on internet issues, build a FTTN network backbone and force Telstra to allow network access to third-party access providers at wholesale rates. If this happened, the ADSL2 (20Mb/sec) equipment already installed for more than a year at my local CO could be activated, getting us out of the 1500/512kbps ADSL1 doldrums.

However, even if Labor DOES back off of this patently moronic filtering idea, as long as Australian internet users can be successfully prosecuted for possession of child porn on account of having some smutty cartoon pisstakes on their computers or for reposting videos which some rookie Queensland cop has decided contain imagery of ‘child abuse,’ the senseless filtering plan really is the least of our worries.

Bill of Rights, anyone?


6 Comments so far
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Weez, from all us hillbillies, thanks for doing the hard yards on this one.

I agree that without our rights being defined by law, this is just another icebergian tip.

It’s gonna be an interesting year. . . all the best for it, mate.

Comment by Hip 01.01.09 @ 3:23 pm

Thanks Hip, and thanks for suffering through this unusually long (for mgk) post. I prefer to keep ’em shorter & sweeter. This one is not really even finished- I could stick in about 30 links substantiating what I’ve written, and may just do so later on… but it’s a lovely day here in the mountains and I wanna work in the veg patch instead of dwelling on the inexplicable stupidity that occasionally invades an otherwise relatively enlightened Labor government.

Comment by weez 01.01.09 @ 4:09 pm

Mark Newton popped me a note about this post. With regard to his level of influence in this debate:

I’ve only played a small part. Irene Graham, EFA and Conroy himself have done more than I to turn the public off this policy.

Can I offer a couple of corrections to you about [your post]?

The closed tests weren’t leaked, so much as published. The Minister sent out a press release on July 28th 2008 trumpeting the results as fantastic news, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the report didn’t support his conclusions


I’m not an IIA board member. Although I talk to them from time to time as part of my job functions, I have no management role with them, and never have in the past. The story about Dennett/Conroy pressuring Internode to keep me quiet was actually magnified by the observation that no rational human could possibly believe that my views were representative of the IIA because I’ve never deigned to speak on their behalf. The suggestion by Dennett that she was trying to “establish whether [my] views are consistent with the policies of the IIA” was nonsensical ex post facto justification, remembering that nobody had so much as mentioned the IIA in the lead-up to that event.

Regards and great thanks,

– mark

Thanks, Mark.

Comment by weez 01.05.09 @ 10:16 pm

good one weez

Mark may not have been the man who saved the net but he’s doing a good job. But we all need to get involved.

Oh, and lucky you to have ADSL, we don’t even have that in my neighbourhood (a reasonably affluent neighbourhood in a reasonably large city). I for one would much rather Labor spend the money on giving Australians decent internet access, rather than trying to stifle it.

Comment by OzAtheist 01.06.09 @ 11:39 am

Yes, I tried to get Mark to accept some praise, but he’s having none of it. Humble bastard, someone ought to knock that humility right out of him. 😆

I moved from Sydney a couple of years ago; we had Optus cable then. It would do 4000kbps downloading, almost respectable. Now we’re on this bloody pathetic ADSL1, scorching along like a greased turbo snail at 1365kbps… 🙄 I spose it could be dialup…

Yes indeed, money is much better spent upgrading the network rather than throttling it- and the users.

All I want for next xmas is fibre to the kerb… but I’ll probably be getting a jail sentence instead.

Comment by weez 01.08.09 @ 5:52 am

Great article, Weez.

Comment by Terry Wright 01.22.09 @ 1:13 am

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