A Blacklist for Websites Backfires in Australia

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It must have seemed like a good idea at the time. If you want to reduce citizens' exposure to dangerous and illegal activities online, why not gather up all the URLs for sites that promote such acts — child pornography, extreme violence, weaponmaking and so on — and have Internet service providers (ISPs) simply block them? Wouldn't that make the Internet safer for families and children?

Actually no, as the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) is finding out the hard way. The ACMA, Canberra's equivalent of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, put together such a list and sent it to more than a dozen companies. It was part of a trial program to develop software that would allow Australian ISPs to block the sites. But to ACMA's evident surprise, at least one person who received the list handed it over to Wikileaks, an online clearinghouse for anonymous submissions of sensitive material. The ACMA "blacklist," as it became known, was promptly posted online, becoming a handy compendium of Internet depravity in one convenient package — courtesy of the Australian government. After the list was posted, a surge in traffic caused Wikileaks to crash temporarily. (See the 10 most interesting finds on Google Earth.)

"It's the most ill-conceived pile of stupidity by the biggest bunch of cretins that I've ever seen in my life," says Ross Wheeler, CEO of Albury.net.au, a regional ISP, referring to the web-filtering plan. "Every ISP that I know of has either publicly or privately said it's technically and practically impossible." The leak was further black icing on the cake. Among the list's more than 1,000 entries were URLs for child porn, rape and bestiality sites as well as online gambling (some forms of which are illegal in Australia) and gay and straight pornography. But many sites appeared to have been blacklisted almost at random. A dentist from Queensland, whose website had once been hacked into by a Russian purveyor of pornography, was on the list. So was pet-care facility MaroochyBoardingKennels.com.au and canteens.com.au, a site belonging to a school-cafeteria consultant. "The only thing I can think of [that may have put me on the list] is that I have e-mailed schools telling them about my book and CD resource, 'How to Have a Healthy and Profitable Theme Day,'" owner Jocelyn Ashcroft told the Sydney Morning Herald.

And while the list in many cases appeared arbitrary at best, some selections appeared politically motivated at worst. Sites advocating legal euthanasia, Satanism and even Christianity were blacklisted. Initially, the Minister for Communications, Stephen Conroy, denied that the list on Wikileaks and the ACMA blacklist are the same, a denial that rang a little hollow when one of its partners, the Internet Industry Association (IIA), publicly condemned the release and posting of the list. "No reasonable person could countenance the publication of links which promote access to child-abuse images, irrespective of their motivation, which in this case appears to be political," said IIA chief executive Peter Coroneos. (See the 25 best blogs of 2009.)

More recently, Wikileaks updated the list, and the Minister acknowledged the similarities but stood firm on proceeding with testing the Internet-filtering software. "Does the [leaked list] mean we are going to stop blocking access to the sites? No. People can continue to put up the lists if they are proud to do that," he told a press conference in Sydney. "It is completely untrue that the leaked blacklist contains political content. This is a list which contains sites that promote incest, rape, child pornography and child abuse."

As a result of the scandals, several of Australia's biggest ISPs pulled out of the filtering-software trials and have urged the government to drop the plan. "It became increasingly clear that the trial was not simply about restricting child pornography or other such illegal material but a much wider range of issues, including what the government simply describes as 'unwanted material' without an explanation of what that includes," said Michael Malone, managing director of iiNet, an Australian ISP. He added that his company agreed to participate in the trial only to demonstrate that the policy was "fundamentally flawed, a waste of taxpayers' money and would not work." Critics of mandatory Internet filtering point out that in some countries, including China and Thailand, it's used to block not only morally objectionable content but also those that are critical of the government. More to the point, many Internet providers say blacklists don't work anyway: most illegal activity online happens via peer-to-peer networking, which Web filters can't block. "It's almost trivial to get around the filters," says Wheeler. "But I can't tell you how, because the government has now made that illegal."

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