Australia's Internet filter ruled by a single bureaucrat

No accountability for blacklists, yet Watchdog's word is final

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 — contained in a response from the ACMA's own public relations department — 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 Computerworld 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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