Fran Foo | February 24, 2009
MAJOR inconsistencies have emerged in the way a top-secret blacklist of web pages is managed by the Australian Communications and Media Authority.
The content of the list of illegal, prohibited and potential prohibited web pages is meant to be strictly confidential. It is the backbone of the federal Government’s internet censorship plan.
The list is of critical importance as it is being used as a basis for internet filtering trials, which involves internet service providers blocking web pages.
ACMA is exempt from the Freedom of Information Act 1982, and disclosure of information on the blacklist could jeopardise efforts to block access to harmful and offensive online material.
‘ACMA would not disclose information if doing so would contradict the Freedom of Information Act,’ the spokesman said.
Recent actions by ACMA, however, have called into question its methods of administering the list.
On January 5, an internet user in Melbourne, known online as Foad, lodged a complaint with ACMA about content on an anti-abortion web page, not the entire website. The man did not want his real name published for fear of reprisals. He said his motive was to test the system and show that web pages not showing material connected with sexual abuse of children could end up on the blacklist.
About two weeks later, he received a reply from ACMA informing him it was ‘satisfied that the internet content is hosted outside Australia, and the content is prohibited or potential prohibited content’.
There was no warning from ACMA not to publicise the anti-abortion web page. ‘I never received any indication from ACMA not to publish it,’ he said.
ACMA’s response was almost immediately published on the internet on various blogs and forums, including the address of the prohibited web page.
An ACMA spokesman confirmed the contents of its letter and said the complainant was not barred from publicising the banned web page. ‘There is no prohibition on complainants publishing the outcome of their complaints, as has happened in this case,’ the spokesman said.
The content of the blacklist is meant to be a closely guarded secret, but ACMA did not act while the web address of the anti-abortion page made its way into the public domain.
ACMA, however, insists the system is not broken, as such incidents are isolated.
‘ACMA has taken similar action on about 7000 web pages since January 1, 2000, and as far as we are aware complainants generally don’t publish the details.
‘The fact that a very small number may do so does not undermine the rationale for keeping the list confidential – including several hundred URLs relating to child sexual abuse material,’ the spokesman said.
Opposition communications spokesman Nick Minchin said the loophole was a ‘major flaw’ and said he would seek an explanation from ACMA on how the address of the banned web page was allowed to be made public.
‘One of our concerns about the proposed mandatory ISP filtering scheme is that it would involve the distribution of the ACMA blacklist to some 700-plus ISPs, and the security of the list is paramount,’ Senator Minchin said.
‘ACMA has a good track record, but this highlights that through the exigency of law and procedure, inadvertently, some of the contents on the list can be made public.
‘We will pursue this matter with ACMA. There’s obviously a major flaw in the current arrangement,’ Senator Minchin said.
The blacklist is regularly updated to remove inactive web pages and add new ones. Once a complaint is received, ACMA will access the case in line with the National Classification Code and the Classification Board Guidelines for Classification of Films and Computer Games.
As of January 31, the blacklist contained 1090 web pages, according to ACMA.
The agency couldn’t provide a breakdown of the list, but the spokesman said the proportions were likely to be similar to those of November 30, which involved 1370 web pages. These include 864 URLs that had been or would be refused classified (RC), 674 links relating to depictions of a child younger than 18, and 441 pages classified X18+.
As recent as last week, a spokesman for Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said the blacklist contained mainly URLs with child sexual abuse images.
Unlike the ACMA blacklist, the classification database is public.
People can search the classification database online to find the classification of a film, computer game or publication.
If a name or title is not known, users can search according to dates, and the system provides all the titles classified – including adult and RC material – for that time. The results include the date of classification, author, publisher and country of origin.
ACMA says the content of the blacklist can’t be as transparent as the classification database, as it would provide almost immediate access to the banned items.
‘The rationale for this measure is that in the offline environment, if a book or film is refused classification or assigned a restricted classification, its distribution is effectively banned or restricted,’ the ACMA spokesman said.
‘Publication of the title of the book or film has little effect on its availability. Publishing the title or internet address of online material, on the other hand, could allow a person to locate, view and download the material, which would be contrary to the regulatory objectives of the Broadcasting Services Act.’
Senator Conroy said ACMA staffers were qualified to decide what went on the blacklist.
He has long argued that internet filtering was one of many ways to protect children online, and the ACMA list was selected for use in live filtering trials.
Asked if the ACMA blacklist would still be used if the Government’s current internet filtering plan became law, a spokesman for Senator Conroy merely said: ‘We’re using the blacklist for the purposes of ISP trials.’
The censorship regime has made the federal Opposition, Greens, civil libertarians and internet users increasingly suspicious of the Government’s motives. They said the Government could use them to block any website it saw fit, as there was no judicial oversight.
Meanwhile, Senator Conroy announced yesterday the appointment of Edith Cowan University to help shape its cyber-safety policies.