Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The perils of legislating channels (and the issue of website filters)

The Australian Parliament House recently released their new website - a major step-up from the previous site.

However in reading an article about it on ZDNet I discovered that the APH had, in the process, decided to block an entire top-level domain (.info) from view by the Parliament and the thousands of people working at Parliament House in order to prevent access to potentially malicious websites.

I haven't been a fan of the internet filtering systems used in government. At varying times I have seen the websites of all the major Australian political parties blocked, preventing access to their media releases, blog posts and announcements - often vital information for public servants writing policy or briefs.

These filters can be quite indiscriminate and are often controlled by commercial parties outside government. That's right, commercial entities, often foreign owned, can be broadly controlling what is allowable for Australian public servants to view online. This could affect government information inputs and potentially influence policy decisions. This is a situation that leaves me vaguely uncomfortable.

Some of the individual categories of content blocked can be equally problematic. For example many filters block access to generally to 'blogs', which may include the Australian Public Service Commission's blog-based consultation of public servants last year, 'video sites', including, for Immigration, their own YouTube channel, social networks (including those used by citizens to discuss specific policies) and, in a range of other cases, 'political' content from citizens and stakeholder groups that could otherwise be influential in the development and implementation of good policy.

One of the biggest issues I have personally found is that you don't know what you don't know. Could a blocked site be vitally important for the decision you need to make? You cannot assess this if you can't look at it.

Some systems allow specific blocking by group of employee - which sounds useful and often is (for example when I worked at ActewAGL I was one of the few allowed to view adult (soft porn) sites, needed in my role of preparing website schedules and analysing the competition for the adult channel TransACT displayed). However when implemented poorly staff may not be able to access the information their managers direct them to use.

In certain cases public servants may be required to use their personal devices to rapidly access critical content blocked by these filters. This is one reason why, for the last four years, I have carried my own Internet-connected device with me while working in government agencies. It makes me more productive in meetings and in preparing business cases when I can access and refer to critical material immediately, rather than not being able to even see if a site may be valuable or not and then waiting for a site to be unblocked so I can access it on a work PC.

It can be time consuming and, in some cases, impossible to request opening sites up. In many cases public servants can ask for specific exceptions, however when you have 48 hours to finish a minute to your Minister in response to public stakeholder or citizen comments on an important piece of proposed legislation, it can be impossible to do the job properly. Identifying which sites you need to see, receiving senior approval, requesting and having IT teams or filtering companies make access available, can take weeks, or even months.

This damages the ability for departments to do their jobs for the government and the public and, quite frankly, delegitimizes those citizens and stakeholders who choose to use forums, blogs, Facebook, YouTube and similar social tools or sites to discuss their views.

Blocking an entire top level domain, as in the APH case, comes with additional risks.

A little known fact is that Australian legislation requires the use of info.au for the Quitnow website, an ongoing major component of the Australian Government's campaign to reduce the instance of smoking.

Quitnow.info.au is advertised on all material for the quit campaign, including on all cigarette packets in Australia.

Now in practice the Department operating this site automatically forwards anyone who types 'Quitnow.info.au' to 'Quitnow.gov.au', so it is not noticeable to citizens. However this is a technical translation (if x go to y) - the domain that citizens see on advertising material still says Quitnow.info.au

If .info.au domains, as well as .info domains, were automatically blocked by the APH (I don't know if this is the case), anyone who tried to go to Quitnow.info.au would arrive at a "you cannot access this site" page and not be forwarded to the Quitnow.gov.au site.

Fortunately the APH does allow staff to request access to specific sites (apparently at least 60 have been opened up to access) and I don't have specific information on whether the APH blocked .info.au sites alongside .info sites, so this specific problem may not exist. However it does demonstrate the risks of blocking entire top level domain groups.

Personally I don't think legislation should specify domains or specific communication channels, in most cases. Technology changes too fast and governments don't want to be caught spending exorbitant funds in supporting defunct channels after the community moves on.

For example, the tabling of documents in parliament should not specifically require a paper copy to be presented and there should be no legislation that requires that a citizen present their claims or complaints via a particular device - postal, phone, fax or web.

Equally governments should not be constrained by legislation to communicating with citizens via postal mail, email, fax or a specific form of written communication (as some legislation does now).

The information transmission and reception mechanisms should simply need to meet levels of modern usage and veracity.

This would prevent agencies from having to spend large amounts of money on preserving and using old technologies where communities have moved on and reduce the time and cost of updating legislation to meet community needs.

Is there a downside of not specifying channels (such as that Quitnow.info.au domain) in legislation? I don't think so. Specification, where required, can happen at the policy level, making it easier and more cost-effective to review and change when the environment changes.

This would remove any potential embarrassments, such as if a government agency does block staff access from an entire domain group (such as .info.au) and accidentally block access to its own legislated websites.

1 comment:

  1. Craig, your site is blocked by federal DHS because it has 'blog' in the URL. You are quite obviously evil ;)

    ReplyDelete