28 April 2011

The Not-So-Great Firewall of Europe

I am staggered by the cluelessness of some politicians [.pdf]:

The Presidency of the LEWP [Law Enforcement Working Party] presented its intention to propose concrete measures towards creating a single secure European cyberspace with a certain "virtual Schengen border" and "virtual access points" whereby the Internet Service Providers (ISP) would block illicit contents on the basis of the EU "black-list".

A big hint of that cluelessness is that these people are still using the term "cyberspace" *seriously* in 2011, as is the fact that they actually think it's possible to create a "single secure European cyberspace" with "virtual borders" and "virtual access points". They only have to look at how porous the Great Firewall of China is - something that has been created and honed by experts with huge resources.

Finally, they seem completely oblivious of the implications of their daft "plan": the imposition of Europe-wide censorship. Again, the fact that "blacklists" (a) don't work and (b) are always flawed is obviously not something the twits in Brussels have quite appreciated. But even if they did work, it's outrageous that the European Union can be contemplating their use without even the slightest twinge of conscience.

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Unnamed sob said...

Hi, since you were linked to from the slashdot front page and no one has commented here, and the discussion there is not really technical, I wanted to ask you something here.

¿Why would blacklist don't work?
¿Would'nt we have to change our browsing habits to overcome the restriction imposed by the EU?

Maybe they can't succeed in blocking access, but they can create lots of problems, right?

If we stated those problems clearly, maybe we can oppose more formally to this proposal.

Thank you,

Glyn Moody said...

@Faras: it wouldn't work for lots of reasons.

You can use proxies/VPNs to access sites on a blacklist: these would become cheap and common if the firewall were set up. That's exactly what has happened in China: there are big blacklists (including sites like Twitter) that are trivial to circumvent.

Equally, some sites might just move - if necessary, changing their name/IP address every week. They can move faster than any blacklist can.

The other aspect is that innocent sites are routinely included on blacklists, as the Australian experience shows.

The big trouble is that politicians never listen to the facts, no matter how clearly explained: they have their agendas, and just stick with them. The current three strikes approach is a good example: it won't stop people from downloading, but it will get lots of innocent people kicked off the Net.

Giovanni said...

Based on direct experience, I can say that very often, and especially about IT, politicians simply can't understand facts; they simply lack the basic cultural tools to do so.

Apart from that, the thing is obviously a demented ballon d'essay, very much like border-locking issue that xenophobe parties keep forwarding every now and then in Europe.

Glyn Moody said...

@Giovanni: I agree about the lack of knowledge; I'm not so confident this is "kite flying" as we say in English...

Anonymous said...

Black lists can actually be helpful to those who are being censored. It forces users to go to censorship resistant technologies to reach a destination which is illegal. This ensures people committing crimes are protected. I have always been against censorship and black lists. I'm beginning to change my mind though because it would further the advancement of the underground web. The only true place you can speak freely. Even here I won't tell you what I really think. Not even of this issue. At least not the whole truth. The more people using the underground the harder it is to distinguish those who you do care about and those you don't.

Glyn Moody said...

@anonymous: that's an interesting point. the trouble, it places the onus on ordinary users to understand slightly arcane issues. Many of them will just accept the censored version...

Anonymous said...

@previous anonymous: I like your thinking but sadly I believe things are closer to glyn moody's view.
I have become a bit pessimistic about people's attitude towards censorship after (quite) some time spent talking to friends and acquaintances about openness (be it related to software, copyright or the net as a whole).

The truth I have found for myself is that most simply do not care, they take what is given, maybe complain for a while, but rarely take the extra step needed to circumvent boundaries.

So as dumb as it may sound for a more internet-savvy person, I would not be surprised if it turned out to be effective on a larger scale. That is why it is always scary to see proposals such as this one.

Anonymous said...

What do You say about blacklists being not effective is technically true. However from a legal point of view it may working. One may simply create a two-sided law - it will be illegal for ISP to pass connection to a black list AND it will be illegal to READ data from black-listed sources. Thous anyone using VPN, proxy or whatever to access black-listed source of data would be a criminal and may end up in prison.

In a similar way one may ban encryption devices or encrypted connections except those, for which keys and algorithms were deposited to government.

Take a look at digital intellectual property law - it is illegal to posses any device able to work around so called "working copy protection means". There is really not a problem to create a law which will prohibit any method of working around blacklists.

In fact such a law should be EXPECTED as without it any blacklist, as You all noticed, will not work.

With regards,
Tomasz Sztejka

Glyn Moody said...

@Tomasz: well, yes, ultimately we might all have chips implanted: it's a question of how far governments are prepared to go to enforce this stuff.

I think you could still get around this using chains of proxies. Also, don't forget VPNs are very important for people in repressive regimes, so Western governments won't want to go too far in outlawing them or making them hard to use.

made up name said...

Two points - no it won't work. you know that, all the political advisors know that, the EU know that.
Point two - this is not about a technical control of the internet, its about a political control. You don't seem to know that, the interested techies don't know that, the EU DO know that! ;)

The real point is that what the Hungarians are doing is being the innocent pasties to bring the idea to the table. The end result will be the EU having legal control of what can and can't be viewed within the EU. While the firewall will not work, it doesn't actually need to - they would decide what content would be illegal, and you would be guilty!
1-0 to the EU!

Glyn Moody said...

I agree this is the game that they are playing, but if we kick up enough fuss they'll pull back - just as Wikileaks has shown the Canadians doing in the face of outcry. They'll only get away with it if we let them....

ibz said...

Shit, I'm just a normal guy and your comments are so deep...

Anonymous said...

>(...)well, yes, ultimately we might all have chips implanted: it's a question of how far governments are prepared to go to enforce this stuff.(...)

This is NOT about how far government is going to ENFORCE the law, but when law defines You as a CRIMINAL.

Some people, especially from countries where is a long democratic tradition tend to think that law which is not enforced is empty. Thous, if wrong, as not enforced or not enforceable, not harmful.

This is NOT true. Such a law, since unknown, infrequently enforced and very easy to circumvent is an IDEAL tool in personal wars. Such a law will be very frequently broken by many people often without them knowing they do commit crime. In plain circumstances police or prosecutors will ignore it. But in some selected cases they do not HAVE TO ignore it.

This means, if I have a problem with You and do have a friend in nearby police, it will be quite easy for me to make my friend to check Your net activity and prosecute You. In countries where law was in servitude to some political elite it was a very common case.

And I'm not a government, right?

Personally I do think that this is one of reasons such a law will be created.

Back to data transfers and law.

Even currently U.S. people agreed that for some content describing some kind of sexual activity it is illegal not only to CREATE, POSSES or DISTRIBUTE but also, what is a really scary issue, to RECEIVE it! Similar in U.K. (but I can't quote it now) it is illegal for one to posses a photo showing oneself performing some LEGAL sexual activity. In Poland it is illegal to say something good about another kind of sexual deviation or to glorify previous political system.

All those are rarely used.... But some people ended up surprised and arrested.

So in fact this is even WORSE if law is stated but NOT ENFORCED. I can't see other reasons to create such law than to create a tool for personal fights.

Tomasz Sztejka.

Glyn Moody said...

@Tomasz@ well, good points, but what's interesting in the UK is that when rarely-use laws are invoked people sit up and take notice - and start fighting to have them repealed, or at least amended.

So it's a two-edge sword: if the government starts using these laws, people start fighting them...