Forget internet filter trials or worrying about how much of your online freedom Conroy’s filter may or may not take away from you; the fact of the matter is Australian internet filtering is very much in the here and now.

ACMA have made it perfectly clear that if you run a website with an .au domain and link to a blacklist website, you will be fined $11,000 a day until you comply and remove the link.

It all started back in January when Whirlpool forum user Matthew Law (xFOADx) submitted a complaint to ACMA citing the page “http://www.abortiontv.com/Pics/AbortionPictures6.htm” as being offensive. Shortly after, Law received a response from ACMA;

Subject: Complaint Reference: 2009000009/ ACMA-691604278
Date: Wed, 21 Jan 2009 15:45:00 +1100
From: online@acma.gov.au

Complaint Reference: 2009000009/ ACMA-691604278

I refer to the complaint that you lodged with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) on 5th January 2009 about certain content made available at:

http://www.abortiontv.com/Pics/AbortionPictures6.htm

Following investigation of your complaint, ACMA is satisfied that the internet content is hosted outside Australia, and that the content is prohibited or potential prohibited content.

The Internet Industry Association (IIA) has a code of practice (http://www.iia.net.au/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=415&Itemid=33) for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) which, among other things, set out arrangements for dealing with such content. In accordance with the code, ACMA has notified the above content to the makers of IIA approved filters, for their attention and appropriate action. The code requires ISPs to make available to customers an IIA approved filter.

Information about ACMA’s role in regulating online content (including internet and mobile content), including what is prohibited or potentially prohibited content is available at ACMA’s website at www.acma.gov.au/hotline

Thank you for bringing this matter to ACMA’s attention.

The site had now been added to a blacklist. That’s how easy it is to get something added, register a complaint and if ACMA don’t like it, it’s gone.

This process has been around for a while now and for the most part is harmless, currently nobody really cares about ACMA’s blacklist because it’s not attached to any filtering that is mandatory. With Conroy’s proposed mandatory internet filter on the horizon planned to use the aforementioned list, we suddenly have a major problem on our hands.

Support groups for the internet filter up to this point have pretty much been chanting ‘You either support the filter or you masturbate to child pornography’. As noted by ‘Wontsomebodythinkofthechildren

This (ACMA’s threat) comes as Senator Stephen Conroy urged those opposed to the Government’s mandatory ISP filtering plan to have faith the right legislation will be passed, saying ‘There is no political content banned in the existing Broadcasting Services Act’. He described some of the opposition as ‘conspiracy theories’.

This recent example of content being added shows just how potentially wide the scope of blacklisted material can be and this is without mandatory filtering in place. Who knows how tight the restrictions might get or what they will eventually branch out to cover. Colin Jacobs from the EFA also comes to the same conclusion;

Despite the Minster’s (ridiculous) assertions that he means well and we should take it on faith that the filter will be effective and benign, this latest episode demonstrates how serious run-ins with the censors can be, that it does not only happen to purveyors of the ‘filth’ politicians rail against. These sorts of incidents will multiply as mandatory filtering is introduced, more controversial content is prohibited, and mirroring, linking and circumvention become common.

Hopefully ACMA’s heavy-handed action will also demonstrate the futility of censoring a medium where web pages spring up by the thousands every second and information is copied at a furious pace.

I would like to point out here that the irony of “http://www.abortiontv.com/Pics/AbortionPictures6.htm” (hereby reffered to as the ‘abortion link’) does actually contain photos of nude children does not escape me but is somewhat irrelevant for the purpose of this entry so I won’t discuss it beyond pointing it out before someone else does.

After the abortion link had been added to the blacklist, it wasn’t long before someone put in a complaint to ACMA about Whirlpool linking to the content. Matthew Law had posted his correspondence as quoted above on Whirlpool’s forums and thus is contained a link to the website, as included in ACMA’s response. So what did ACMA do? They contacted Whirlpool’s host, Bulletproof Networking and threatened to fine them $11,000 AUD a day unless they complied and removed the abortion link.

Websinthe on Public Polity sums it up perfectly;

Regardless of your stance on abortion, the right to speak against it is one that any freedom loving person can tolerate as an expression of free speech.

If you take nothing else away from this article, then at least understand that a website hosted in Australia that links to, forget about hosting offensive content we’re talking about linking to here, a website listed on ACMA’s blacklist, which is not publicly available for review so you have no idea what is on it, will be fined $11,000 AUD a day by a government body unless they take down the offending link.

Have your alarm bells gone off yet?

Furthermore ACMA doesn’t just filter the offending material but they add the entire site to their blacklist, Websinthe notes;

When an ACMA blacklisted site is blocked by a Net Alert filter there is no option for a system administrator to unblock the site and the user is informed that the site is permanently blocked.

Given the nature of this site, it is confirmation that the ACMA does not just filter the illicit parts of sites, but the entire site.

Blacklists themselves are hardly the pinnacle of security. Late last year the blacklists of Denmark and Thailand were made public.

The end result?

A publicly available tailored list of websites specifically catering to child pornography amongst other things. There are enough people opposed to mandatory filtering that a leak of the list can almost be guaranteed to happen here, if for nothing else then to humiliate the government in retaliation for censoring the internet.

Thankfully OzSoapbox is hosted offshore, although if Conroy’s mandatory filter was in place and a complaint was made about my site linking to the abortion link, I can only wonder for how long Australians would be able to access this site without having to go through a third party proxy or use an encrypted network like Tor.

The absolutely frightening reality that an Australian website can be effectively forced to remove content that links to a website on a list that nobody has access to and therefore no way to prevent such linking before it happens until a complaint is made to ACMA is an outrage. Never before has Australia’s implied freedom of speech been under such blatant threat by the very government itself.

It is important to note that the abortion link complaint was only made possible because ACMA’s official response containing information on adding the website was posted publicly. Should the email have not been made public, it is quite feasible that nobody would have known the site was blacklisted under the current system. Had the mandatory filter have been activated, it is unclear whether the particular page that originally contained the link to the abortion site would have accessible from within Australia.

As of publication, a google search reveals that AtomicPC and Whirlpool are the only .au hosted sites that currently contain the abortion link. Whirlpool’s forum archive contains the abortion link, as seen here and here. After the pages load search them for “http://www.abortiontv.com/Pics/AbortionPictures6.htm“.



Update 19th March, 2009:

Wikileaks has just released the ACMA blacklist into the wild.