Wikileaks: all ur blacklists R belong to us

John C. Tanner
23 Mar 2009

I get press releases. Sometimes they’re from government regulators. And sometimes they’re grimly amusing. Like the one I received Thursday from Australian Senator Stephen Conroy, Minister for Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, who is not at all pleased with reports that a government list of banned web sites has been leaked and published on Wikileaks.

The list is maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA), and purportedly targets sites containing content banned under current broadcast laws, such as “child sexual abuse, rape, incest, bestiality, sexual violence and detailed instruction in crime.”

The alleged publication of the list has caused a stir in anti-censorship circles because the list includes plenty of URLs that do not fit any of the above categories. According to the Sydney Morning Herald, “banned” URLs on the list include “online poker sites, YouTube links, regular gay and straight porn sites, Wikipedia entries, euthanasia sites, websites of fringe religions such as satanic sites, fetish sites, Christian sites, the website of a tour operator and even a Queensland dentist.”

Making this an even bigger deal is that the Australian government has been actively pursuing a scheme to make the ACMA blacklist – currently used for Web filtering software on a voluntary basis – mandatory for all Australians. For their own protection, of course.

However, Senator Conroy said that the list published on Wikileaks is not the ACMA list, but a fake. “The published list purports to be current at 6 August 2008 and apparently contains approximately 2400 URLs whereas the ACMA blacklist for the same date contained 1061 URLs,” he said.

Perhaps. But the list’s authenticity is beside the point. The real controversy here is that there’s no way to verify if the list is real or not, because the ACMA keeps it secret.

To be sure, that’s hardly unusual. Most web filter software firms (and not a few governments) also keep their blacklists secret. However, the secrecy almost always comes back to haunt them. I’ve lost count of how many times in the last 15 years that hackers have cracked open web filters to access the URL blacklist inside and found hundreds of sites well outside of the “official” banned content categories named to justify web filtering.

For example, Thailand’s own URL blacklist, also published on Wikileaks, officially purports to target child porn, but secretly also bans 1,200 sites critical of the royal family. The ACMA’s blacklist also initially targeted child porn when it was created in 2000. Since then it’s been expanded to include other “illegal” content. Tellingly, the ACMA has now added Wikileaks to the blacklist. Maybe they’ll add to the blacklist for posting this link to the official Wikileaks press release responding to Senator Conroy’s threat of criminal prosecution against whoever leaked the list.

See where this is going?

The point is that secret blacklists are rubbish at keeping people away from content you don’t want them to see (as Wikileaks has just proven – again), but great at empowering the persons or entities in charge of the list to censor whatever they want in accordance with whatever agenda suits them.

But then I don’t favor government web censorship of any kind. Ideological reasons aside, it’s hardly worth the effort and expense. Web censorship is hard by any measure. If nothing else, independent experts evaluating Australia’s general web filtering scheme have found it virtually unworkable to the point that political support for the necessary legislation is evaporating.

Senator Conroy has said he’ll push forward with the scheme anyway.

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