This week I had a talk with Peter Mancer who is the managing director of Watchdog International.
Now I meet plenty of CEOs and spokespeople in the day-to-day work of my job, but Mancer's role is slightly different as he is the brains behind the internet filter in New Zealand.
He is described by his marketing people as a ‘web content filtering expert and a world leader in the latest technologies for challenging the presence of child sexual abuse images on the internet'.
His role is not really a technical one, he admitted that the efforts in establishing and managing the filter have been more about safety than security, but he has worked with governments, law enforcement agencies, charities, technology providers and internet service providers (ISPs) all over the world to promote and champion the development of specialist filtering technologies for tackling the availability of online images of child sex abuse.
Peter Mancer was previously a technical envoy for the New Zealand government to ECPAT (end child prostitution, child pornography and the trafficking of children) in Sweden to investigate internet filtering.
He presented the filtering solution to the New Zealand department of internal affairs and since then, he's been working both with the DIA, ECPAT and ISPs to ensure the successful trial and on-going service of the filter.
So the basics of the filter are that it was developed by a Swedish company called Netclean, who had previously run it on a university network in Sweden and it was then taken up by the New Zealand government.
ISPs sign up to have their traffic filtered and Mancer explained that it was very much for the benefit of the smaller and ‘downstream' ISP.
Mancer said: “The New Zealand government took it up and I promoted it to them. ECPAT talked about blacklisting technology but we did not take that up as it was using DNS poisoning, so we saw the system working in Sweden in their University network and liked it. Because it was commercially available, the nice thing about it is that it can be externally hosted.”
He further explained that it is only designed for ISPs, rather than for corporate networks, as it is for a provider with a BGP connection. Mancer explained that Watchdog International were looking at larger ISPs when it was doing the trial, as the larger ISP will often work and provide for smaller providers; Allcon is an example of this.
As to how it works, Mancer said: “It works with URL blacklisting. The Internet Watch Foundation built theirs through law enforcement and intelligence but ECPAT added a hotline so users can add websites to the reporting list.
“Sites are blocked by individual URLs but we are careful of overall policies, if it cannot be taken down it will be reported to the provider. The Wikipedia page is a good example of this from earlier this year (when six of the UK's main ISPs restricted access to Wikipedia amid child pornography allegations after it featured a cover of the German rock band The Scorpions), as are most of the media sites such as YouTube. But all we need to do is tell them and if they are convinced then they will take it down as they have a responsibility.”
From the trials (whitepapers will be launched soon), results showed that 40 per cent of traffic was filtered and a number of sites were blocked. Mancer claimed that it is hard to tell what the reaction to this will be as the only real statistic you get is the number of times a site is blocked, but there is no real clarity as the system is not really built for statistics.
The main news surrounding the development of the filter was to do with the controversy surrounding web freedom, with points made that it has only been trialled so far and ISPs have to opt into its use, but Mancer did acknowledge that it had ‘been met with a lot of negative reaction.'
One such negative reaction was from Geekzone.co.nz founder and blogger Mauricio Freitas, who wrote last month that he did not like the idea of a government body overseeing what he could read.
Freitas said: “What really worries me is that it looks like there isn't an oversight of this process, there 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.
“Internet filtering gives the government - any government - the resources they need or want to prevent people connecting to each other by the means of the internet, one of the most liberating tools available to its citizens.
“But I don't think a government should tell me what I can see or read because of some criminals who have no common sense. Burning books was bad. Breaking the internet may be worse.”
However Mancer was eager to point out: “This is not a security issue, more a child protection one and stopping commercial sites from learning to do it, more about what it is.”
In practise, if a user tries to access a blocked page they will get a message saying that the ‘site has been blocked', in contrast to the UK where it will simply say ‘error'. Mancer said: “We wanted to advise the public and use it as a deterrent and as a point of contact, we wanted a soft approach.
“The warning will tell the user that the selected site ‘contains illegal content', the ISP can access an appeal page so if they believe that it is has been blocked in error they can appeal it. This is a more transparent way of doing it.”
Finally I asked Mancer whether this sort of technology would work in the UK. He claimed that the UK is a ‘different' case as it now has 95 per cent broadband coverage, and ISPs are keen to filter but do not see why they should spend money.
Mancer said: “The government is interested in it, as are charities, so there may be more pressure, we may even see a move towards it but until we get the last five per cent we won't get a solution. That five per cent makes it quite difficult, in New Zealand they put their hand up and said that they would do it, in the UK they say that they will do it but they don't want to pay for it.”
There is a lot right in what New Zealand is doing and from a child safety perspective it should drive explicit material down, whether on legitimate sites or via spam. However it is also easy to sympathise with Freitas's claim that there are no guarantees that further ‘categories' could be added to the list.
Blogger Thomas Beagle asked the Department of Internal Affairs what types of content get a site/address added to the list? Its response was ‘only websites that include child sexual abuse imagery or text within the definition of ‘objectionable' contained in section 3(2)a of the Films, Videos, and Publications Classification Act (i.e. publications that promotes or supports, or tends to promote or support the exploitation of children, or young persons, or both for sexual purposes) are added to the filtering list.'
While there is a need for privacy there is a need for freedom, and it is hard to see this getting pushed out in the UK if it is struggling in a country with a population of only four million. Whether the government, charities, ISPs and users come to a compromise will determine the success both in New Zealand, and in the UK.