As predicted by many, the ultra top-secret blacklist of banned websites maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA)* has been leaked. If you link to one of the banned websites, you can be fined $11,000 per day that the link is in place. Although, how you would know that you are linking to a banned site that is contained on a secret list is anyone’s guess.
Wikileaks, an anonymous whistleblower site that has since been added to the blacklist (which is why I am not adding in the link), leaked the blacklist. So much for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s election promise to protect whistleblowers.
What is interesting is that many of the sites on the blacklist are legal sites. Some of the sites blacklisted are a dentist in Queensland, a tour bus operator and Christian sites. The question now being asked and not being answered by the ACMA is why are these sites blacklisted?
The problem for the owners of these sites is that they have absolutely no recourse. Once you are on the blacklist, you are on and that is just your bad luck. The only way you can ever know that you are on the list is if some brave whistleblower facing fines and jail terms leaks the list.
So how does one get blacklisted?
There are two ways to end up on the blacklist, either through direct channels or inadvertently. Currently, if I come across a website that I do not approve of either because I believe it is illegal or does not suit my ideological bent, I can make a complaint to the ACMA. In order to make a complaint, I must be an Australian resident or a company that carries on activities in Australia, provide the internet address and/or sufficient access details to enable ACMA to access the online content and provide reasons as to why I believe the online content is prohibited. The ACMA will then make a determination as to whether that site is added to the blacklist. It is not clear how the ACMA makes this determination. It has also been reported that other bodies such as filter software companies can also add websites to the blacklist. It is not clear how this is policed.
So how does one inadvertently end up on the list? Imagine that Big Buba from the Buba crime syndicate published a websites called FriendlyTours.com. However this is a front for an illegal website publishing unsavoury pictures. The site is found, a complaint made to ACMA and rightly added to the blacklist. A few weeks later, Big Buba closes down the site and moves to a new domain called BubaTours.com to try and keep ahead of the authorities. This site is also added to the blacklist and a few weeks later the site moves again and again.
Meanwhile, Jan who has been working for a large multi-national for 20 years is called into her manager’s office and told that she is being made redundant. With her large redundancy cheque, she decides to pursue her dream of running a tour business. She calls her business Friendly Tours and finds that the domain name is available. She registers the domain name and has a nice website built.
Jim, a dentist, decides to have a website built for his practice. His Internet Service Provider assigns his domain JimsDentistry.com to an IP address that was previously occupied by BubaTours.com. Both Jim and Jan are friends of mine. I offer to help them increase their Google rankings by linking to their sites through my website, my blog and my Facebook page.
A few weeks go by and Jim and Jan start getting emails from people saying they cannot access their websites. They don’t know why. They try to contact me for an explanation but cannot get hold of me. That is because I am in court being fined $11,000 a day for linking to a banned site. The people who emailed Jim and Jan are also in court facing jail terms of ten years for trying to access a site contained on the blacklist.
This blacklist is to form the backbone of the government’s mandatory filtering regime. The leaked list apparently contains 2,395 websites. The Communications Minister, Stephen Conroy wants to expand this to 10,000 websites. Will the ACMA be under pressure to find sites, any sites, to reach this number? The legitimacy of the blacklist will always be in question while owners of websites on the blacklist have no means of recourse especially if that site is legitimate.
The greatest concern of the blacklist being leaked is that it will provide a road map for those seeking to find these illegal sites. The blacklist will also provide vital clues to these people in their quest for finding like sites.
However, there is no need to maintain a list if, as I have argued before, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) organisation be given the powers to deregister these sites. Once deregistered, they disappear off the domain name servers (the internet’s address book) and cannot be accessed. Linking to them will just return an error. However, for this to work effectively, the owner of the site should have recourse to challenge the de-registration. If the site is illegal, instead of putting the site on a blacklist, the authorities should just go after the owners.
The proposed internet filtering system that is currently being tested is fast becoming a disaster for this government. In the meantime, the government is doing nothing to address the real problems children face online that I have outlined before: predators who groom them via chat rooms; bullies who harass and intimidate them via email and mobile phones; nasties who post photos of you taken without your permission; those who spread lies and rumours about you via social network sites; thugs who upload a clip of them beating you up - these are the real problems facing children.
* The blacklist was instigated by the previous government.
Chris Abood is a member of the Liberal Party of Australia and a member of the Australian Computer Society. Besides having a day job, he teaches ICT part time at TAFE. He is concerned with the effects and use of technology within society. These opinions are his own.