Australia: How about extra censorship?-Uber Review

March 25, 2009

What the Leaked Australian Internet Blacklist Says About Censorship
Uber Review: March 22, 2009

The recent leaking of Australia’s ISP filtering blacklist on WikiLeaks has raised more questions than it has provided answers. The government has long maintained that the blacklist was created with the purpose of preventing access to child pornography, and while the blacklist did contain a large number of sites of a truly vile nature, it comes as little surprise that there were a few extras thrown in for good measure. Among the 2,395 sites that are on the list there are also online poker sites, certain Wikipedia pages, YouTube links, gay and straight porn sites, euthanasia pages, sites belonging to fringe religions and some Christian websites. It also comes as no surprise that there were some seemingly erroneous inclusions of private businesses and medical practitioners.

In response to the leak, the ACMA has stated:

ACMA has previously investigated and taken action on material—including child pornography and child sexual abuse images—at some of the sites on this list of 2300 URLs. However, the list provided to ACMA differs markedly in length and format to the ACMA blacklist. The ACMA blacklist has at no stage been 2300 URLs in length and at August 2008 consisted of 1061 URLs. It is therefore completely inaccurate to say that the list of 2300 URLs constitutes an ACMA blacklist.

None of the 14 ISPs that have access to the list have jumped to their defense. Which, leads me to believe that the list is most likely authentic.

According to Electronic Frontiers Australkia vice-chairman Colin Jacobs:

This was bound to happen, especially as mandatory filtering would require the list to be distributed to ISPs all around the country. The Government is now in the unenviable business of compiling and distributing a list which includes salacious and illegal material and publicising those very sites to the world.

Privacy advocates would argue that a blacklist leaves the door open for other types of censorship and that people who wish to access illegal material will find their way to it one way or another; a claim which gains strength considering the various types of sites that are on the list. In creating a filter, the government is also creating a defacto monitoring system, that places all Internet use under constant surveillance.

Then there are the technical aspects of censorship. It constricts rapidly increasing traffic and slows the flow of information. It is not simply a matter of blocking access to the sites on the list; all Internet use must be monitored in order to prevent access to the blacklisted sites. Thus, as the number of sites on the list grows, the speed of user traffic will decrease. Australia’s Internet is already embarrassingly slow for a developed country a nation-wide filtration system would constitute a further step back. At the present speed, medical practitioners are forced to send high definition imagery by courier, rather than electronically; so one could hardly argue that the speed is fast enough.

If an illegal site finds its way onto the list then one might argue that at best it is a poorly kept secret. Surely there is more to be gained by by keeping the knowledge of such sites a secret, and then infiltrating them to monitor the user-base and follow up by making arrests. In recent years there have been some extremely significant successes to this end, these are the results of sound investigative work and the cooperation of law enforcement on an international scale; and not as a result of censorship. Hiding the content does not prevent the abuse that occurs in its creation; whether it is blocked or not, the website still exists. Censorship is a head-in-the-sand approach to the real problem.

The blacklist is a secret, which leaves people with no recourse should their website find its way onto the list erroneously, they may not even know that their website has been placed on the list. The WikiLeaks document proved that not only could it happen, but that it has happened. Were the nation-wide filter in place, these businesses could suffer irreparable damage. Maintaining the list would be a task of awesome responsibility, yet there has been no disclosure of who or what organization would carry out the task.

Further, there is there any clarification as to what would be grounds for blacklisting. Why, for example, are there poker sites on the list when offshore gambling and poker had not previously been mentioned by the government? The list included such well known poker sites as Party Poker and Full Tilt, a poker site owned by a number of World Series of Poker players; Bet Fair and Mansions also made the list of gambling sites. Presumably, anyone in Australia linking to any of these sites would run the risk of being issued an $11,000 fine, which is the same fine that would be issued for posting a link to WikiLeaks, the latest edition to the list. The only mention of gambling is with regards to the family-friendly filter system, not to the nation-wide blacklist, which falls under Schedule 7 of the Broadcasting Services Act.

According to the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA):

If ACMA receives a complaint about prohibited internet gambling content that is hosted in Australia, ACMA will refer the matter to the Australian Federal Police.

If prohibited internet gambling content is hosted outside Australia, ACMA will notify the content to makers of the approved Family Friendly Filters listed in Schedule 1 to the Interactive Gambling Act Industry code.

I will grant that the Internet censorship scheme was conceived with good intentions, but history has shown that governments should not be allowed to dictate the flow of information into a country. Certainly, there are some vile sites on the Internet, and people should be prosecuted for maintaining or visiting them, but slowing the speed of a nation’s broadband in the hope of preventing a few people from finding their way into such places is not the solution. The list has proven to be fallible and the government has chosen to be less than forthcoming as to the sites that are on it and the criteria for selection; reason enough for the Australian public to do their utmost to ensure that the concept never becomes reality. [ACMA]

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