Sunday, March 19, 2006

Why a "Clean Internet Channel" won't work

I received a message on my answering machine tonight from a group that is advocating the creation of a "Clean Internet Channel". Although the web site is rather short on details, it sounds very similar to another recent proposal in Utah called "CP80" that proposed the use of a separate TCP port for pornographic content on the Internet, thus allowing people to easily choose whether or not to allow said content on their Internet connections. Although their end goal is a good one, their logical skills seem to be a bit lacking.

To be fair, I must admit that an Internet port, or "channel" as they like to call it, could be used in this fashion. People use different Internet ports all the time for different things, although it is usually for more technical reasons (e.g. requesting an encrypted version of a web site as opposed to the regular, unencrypted version). It would be rather simple to get a bunch of lawyers-turned-politicians together and create a law that forced all pornographic content to use a special Internet port. It would take a monumental effort to get all of the software in the world to work correctly, but we'll conveniently ignore that fact. Thus far, we'll assume that the Clean Channel idea will technically work. The devil is in the details, though.

Problem #1: How do you avoid cheaters?
The first question that they need to ask themselves is how they will prevent people from cheating. That is, how do you prevent web sites from offering inappropriate content using the Clean Internet Channel? We'll consider the legal aspects of this in a moment, but for now, let's simply talk about the technical hurdles involved. The most common way to block "bad" Internet ports is to use a firewall; companies often use firewalls to prevent access to things like file sharing programs (which use their own specific Internet ports).

A firewall simply looks at the relevant Internet port of your Internet traffic and allows or denies it based on that port. Unfortunately, a firewall becomes useless junk if a pornographic website decides to maliciously use the "clean port"; the traffic will look good to the firewall because it is coming from a port number that is considered to be clean. More advanced firewalls can do more than this -- they can scan the data being passed through them and look for keywords that are considered bad (e.g. "sex", "drugs", "rock and roll"), and then allow or deny the data based on those key words -- but if that's the real solution, then why even bother with the Clean Internet Channel? We already have the technology to do the deeper keyword-based blocking, so why create a port-based law that would basically be ineffective?

Problem #2: How do you internationally enforce a US law?
Now let's address the political issues involved. How do you legally stop a web site from cheating? "Well, we'll just sue companies that don't comply!" is undoubtedly the answer. This will work for companies like Playboy, but it's tough to sue companies that are based outside of the United States. Do they really think that Europe cares about a US Clean Internet Channel? Even if Europe did agree to implement a similar law, I know that their standards for pornography are quite different than what we have here; just watch Europen television for a while and you'll see the difference. And if we can't get Europe to comply, then what are the chances of getting even more dissimilar countries to comply, like Nigeria or Venezuela?

Problem #3: How do you find the cheaters?
Even if the entire world adopted the same law and the same standards for pornography, you still wouldn't be able to shut them all down; you simply couldn't find and sue them fast enough. The Clean Internet Channel web site refers to a wonderful technology that "will instantly track down and report to law enforcement any sending of pornographic material through the Clean Channel", but it won't work. Why not? Because if it did work, then the problem would already be solved; you could just buy it and use it as a filter for your Internet connection, as it would be able to recognize indecent content regardless of the associated Internet port. Obviously, their wonderful porn-recognition techology won't work as well as they are claiming.

Let's face it, everyone: porn is here to stay. You're not going to find an easy way to prevent people from finding it. In fact, if you put a determined 14-year-old up against any porn-filtering mechanism, I guarantee that the porn filter is going to lose every time. A Clean Internet Channel law is simply a feel-good measure for parents, not a real solution to the problem. I can only hope that legislators realize this and begin to place more emphasis on education instead of technological placebos.