Aussie internet controversy reignited by leaked blacklist

The white hot controversy over the attempts by the Australian government to censor the Internet erupted again in Australia this week as a leaked blacklist surfaced on the Wikileaks website.

‘The Australian’ newspaper reported that the top-secret list (apparently blocked sites are not notified of the action taken against them or why) was at the centre of a federal government trial of a proposed new enforcement regime aimed at blocking sites which the government’s Australian Communications and Media Authority considers unsuitable for Australians.

The newspaper reported that the secret blacklist, which is maintained by the ACMA, contains 2 395 web pages including those which have been refused classification, X18+ and MA15+ content.

But the list is now in the public domain, having been published by Wikileaks, an anonymous document repository for whistleblowers, after it was obtained from an internet filtering software maker.

“While Wikileaks is used to exposing secret government censorship in developing countries, we now find Australia acting like a democratic backwater,” the Wikileaks website noted. “History shows that secret censorship systems, whatever their original intent, are invariably corrupted into anti-democratic behaviour.”

Wikileaks has also published website blacklists for Thailand, Denmark and Norway.

The content of the list of illegal, prohibited and potentially prohibited web pages is meant to be strictly confidential. It forms the backbone of the federal Government’s internet censorship plan which is currently undergoing trials with a number of internet service providers.

Federal Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was quick to condemn the leak, and claimed it was not the ACMA’s list: “I am aware of reports that a list of URLs has been placed on a web site. This is not the ACMA blacklist,” he said. “The published list purports to be current at 6 August 2008 and apparently contains approximately 2 400 URLs whereas the ACMA blacklist for the same date contained 1 061 URLs.”

The Minister described the leak as “grossly irresponsible”.

“Under existing laws the ACMA blacklist includes URLs relating to child sexual abuse, rape, incest, bestiality, sexual violence and detailed instruction in crime,” Senator Conroy said. “No one interested in cyber safety would condone the leaking of this list.”

The Australian reports that of the 2 395 web pages on the leaked list, approximately half relate to child porn. But many more web pages simply relate to online poker sites, specific YouTube links, pornography sites, and Wikipedia entries.

ACMA is investigating the leak and is considering a range of possible actions it may take including referral to the Australian Federal Police. The agency threatened that any Australians caught distributing the list could face criminal charges.

The Internet censorship story was also carried by the Courier Mail newspaper, which revealed that a dentist’s practice, a tuckshop convener and a kennel operator in Queensland have all been wrongly included on the list of websites that ISPs are supposed to block.

The owners of the companies were outraged when approached for comment by the newspaper. The manager of the dental surgery said they had never been contacted by ACMA about being on the list, and were struggling to understand how their website, http://www.dentaldistinction.com.au, had come to be on it. The only explanation possible was that the list was hopelessly out of date – the dental website had been hacked once, eighteen months ago, diverting visitors to a sex toy shop, but that had all been sorted out at the time.

One of the banned sites on the leaked blacklist that surprised Herald Sun newspaper reporters was one of the most popular websites in Australia. Although it is constrained by law from naming the website in question, the Herald Sun revealed that it was a popular porn site and the 38th most popular in Australia, according to web ranking service Alexa. The site is visited by millions of Australians and is more popular than sites like White Pages, Yellow Pages, Optus, Career One and the official sites of the NSW, Victoria and Queensland state governments, the newspaper added.

The Herald Sun quoted Colin Jacobs, vice chairman of Electronic Frontiers Australia as saying: “Many of the sites clearly contain only run-of-the-mill adult material, poker tips, or nothing controversial at all. Even if some of these sites may have been defaced at the time they were added to the list, how would the operators get their sites removed if the list is secret and no appeal is possible?”

“The leaking of this list has confirmed some of our worst fears,” Jacobs continued. “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.”

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