Australia's Internet filter ruled by a single bureaucrat

The accountability of the federal government's Internet content filter has been called into question following revelations that the decision to ban Web sites lacks consultation and can be made by a single staffer.

Privacy advocacy groups have expressed concerns that the looming Internet content filter could become authoritarian unless adequate accountability and review is included into how the communications watchdog bans Web sites.

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) was left red-faced after it was attacked in a recent Senate Estimates hearing by Senator Scott Ludlam for banning an anti-abortionist Web site without consulting the classification board.

The embarrassment follows a heavy-handed redress by the watchdog in which online hosting company BulletProof Networks was threatened with an $11,000 a day fine for allowing the publication of a Web address to a banned anti-abortion Web site.

The infringing Web address mdash; contained in a response from the ACMA's own public relations department mdash; was published in online forum Whirlpool, after a user requested the watchdog in January to ban the Web site.

Media outlets everywhere republished the banned Web address and were threatened with the $11,000 penalty.

In another controversial move yesterday, the ACMA blacklisted Wikileaks for publishing the details of the banned anti-abortion Web site.

Users are goading the watchdog to ban its own Wikipedia page by including the link to the blacklisted Web site. User edits have removed the details of the site at the time of publication and further edits have been locked by the site.

It took the ACMA less than three months to ban the anti-abortion Web site.

Later, the user admitted the request was issued to confirm widespread suspicion that the watchdog would add “questionable” content to its blacklists, which will frame what material is accessible by the nation-wide Internet content filters.

Privacy advocacy groups say the watchdog can ban Web sites at its own discretion without consultation with the classification board or parliamentary review. They say laws requiring the ACMA to consult with the classification board do not apply to online media.

Greens Senator and communications spokesman Scott Ludlam told lt;igt;Computerworldlt;/igt; the Internet content filtering plan has not progress enough to determine what content will be blocked.

“I don’t think they know for themselves exactly how this is going to work. My personal opinion is that it’s probably going to fail, and if it doesn’t fail it’s going to be dangerous,” Ludlam said.

ACMA spokesman Donald Robertson said it has modified its complaints resolution processes to omit URLs following the dispute.

“ACMA must advise complainants of the outcomes of their complaints and ACMA's usual practice has been to include the relevant URLs in those responses,” Robertson said in a prepared statement.

The department did not return repeated calls to its media centre nor e-mails to the department in charge of the blacklists.

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Electronic Frontiers Association (EFA) spokesman Geordie Guy said “an ACMA intern” could make the sole decision to ban Web sites.

“They have absolutely no review process whatsoever; the decision to ban content is final, and there is no judicial oversight.

“The decision is made by a single ACMA staffer, even someone part of a graduate process, who assumes the classification board would not like [a Web site].

“The two types of content that ACMA can hide from the eyes of Australians are prohibited content, which has been previously classified; and potentially prohibited content which is banned on a hunch that the classification board won't like it.”

Guy said the ACMA told a Senate Estimates hearing it did not request classification of the anti-abortion Web site, but had instead extrapolated a prior decision by the board to ban a Web site of similar material. It also told the hearing it would not impose a penalty on the Whirlpool Web site.

Former EFA chair Dale Clapperton said in a previous article that lobby groups will try to exploit the blacklists to push their agendas.

“Every organisation with an axe to grind and any kind of political clout will be lobbying the government to extend the blacklist to block access to whatever it is that pisses them off. They don’t even tell the operators of a site that it has been blacklisted, which as a practical matter means there is no appeal for these decisions, Clapperton said.

“In the case of a false positive it is really dependent on somebody discovering it by chance,” he said.

Speaking on the $11,000 penalty, which was not imposed, Guy said the watchdog was “kind of annoyed” that the Whirlpool member complaint was issued to test the limitations of the ACMA blacklist rather than from “someone genuinely morally outraged by the content”.

He said the ACMA redress is a step away from the freedoms of online forums towards Internet censorship where Web masters must become content police.

Only a handful of complainants from more than 6000 since January 2000 have published verbatim responses, according to the ACMA.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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