(fake?) ACMA Blacklist leaked; citizens threatened with prosecution

Senator Conroy
(Image uploaded by Wild to OCAU)

So it appears that the ACMA blacklist has been leaked (scoop by Asher Moses and Wikileaks). This is the secret list of sites that have been deemed to be prohibited by the communications regulator, and are slated to be blocked by Senator Conroy's proposed filter. Senator Conroy has now said that this leaked list is not the ACMA blacklist. Conroy did confirm that the list shared some URLs with the ACMA list, but had many others that were not added by ACMA.

This suggests that the leaked list may be a combined filtering vendor's list, containing parts of the ACMA list and URLs added by the vendor or from other sources. Unfortunately, we have no way of knowing which URLs, if any, were added by ACMA and which were added by any third parties.

The list is apparently from late last year, and contains just over two thousand URLs (about double the size of the current list). On the list are some sites which look like they may possibly contain some child sexual abuse material. Unfortunately, there are also a very high number of innocuous sites – dentists, tuckshops, dog kennels, favourite collections of lolcats. Reports are coming out that these sites may have been hacked in the past and found their way on to the blacklist. This raises an immediate problem – what happens when the website owner fixes its security hole and removes prohibited content? How do you (a) find out you're on the blacklist; and then (b) get your site removed?

Then there's another category of sites on the list – sites that appear to have been wrongly categorised – legitimate adult sites, poker and betting sites, the Encyclopedia Dramatica, 4chan, and many more.

There is a real legitimacy problem if the Australian public are not allowed to know what is blocked, and there is no recourse for blocked sites to appeal decisions by ACMA.

What makes this much, much worse is that we face serious repercussions for simply wanting to examine the list and point out mistakes by ACMA or undesirable effects of the censorship regime. ACMA says that “Australians caught distributing the list or accessing child pornography sites on the list could face criminal charges and up to 10 years in prison.”

Last week, we saw ACMA threaten whirlpool's hosts with fines of up to $11,000/day if it did not remove links to a page that links to a another site on the current ACMA blacklist.

Today, Senator Conroy said that

ACMA is investigating this matter and is considering a range of possible actions it may take including referral to the Australian Federal Police. Any Australian involved in making this content publicly available would be at serious risk of criminal prosecution

This is extremely worrying from an accountability and legitimacy point of view. Australian have effectively been asked to take it on faith that the ACMA list is legitimate and only contains so-called 'illegal' sites, does not result in over-blocking, and is both accurate and up-to-date. Any citizen who wants to investigate those claims is faced with the threat of criminal prosecution.

This is not only bad policy, but it's bad democracy. Solving the problem caused by leaked lists by silencing critique is not best way forward.