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Telstra, Optus expand filter list

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Australia’s existing Internet “blacklist” – a database of links maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority – is to be expanded, with Telstra and Optus announcing that they will voluntarily block the additional list entries.

It’s an announcement that has sent Australian press into a minor frenzy, but it’s more like a storm in a teacup.

Here’s how blacklisting is supposed to work in Australia: under a regime introduced more than a decade ago by the Howard government, users are able to report sites to the ACMA. If those sites are assessed as being outside Australia’s classification system, they’re added to the ACMA’s blacklist, and ISPs are supposed to block access to those sites.

The blacklist was only introduced because all former proposals for censoring the Internet had failed: it was as strong a mechanism as the government could get through parliament at the time. Governments on both sides of the political fence have toyed with expanding the scope of censorship in this country, but without much success.

The most recent attempts to censor the Internet, by Senator Stephen Conroy, minister for Communications, Broadband and the Digital Economy, stalled because there’s no chance of getting the legislation passed by a senate it doesn’t control.

However, the ACMA blacklist, in spite of being secret and of only moderate effectiveness, has remained in place throughout.

So what’s changed?

One of the reasons the blacklist is ineffective is that it imposes only light responsibilities on service providers. They have to follow an industry code of practice, and “take appropriate steps to protect the public from prohibited content”.

Opponents of censorship argue that even this goes too far, while proponents argue that it demands almost no action at all, and in spite of a fearsome system of fines – up to AU$27,500 a day for a company – enforcement has been more or less absent.

This weeks’ announcements in effect see Telstra and Optus making a public commitment to comply with the voluntary filtering regime that the government has been seeking to implement following its failure to legislate.

However, the chief mechanism – the use of the ACMA blacklist, and the addition of 500 child pornography sites to that list – is only minimally different to what already existed.

The most worrying aspect of the announcement isn’t that a couple of carriers are saying they will implement a blacklist that’s existed, in one form or another, for over a decade (and has had almost no impact on the Australian Internet in that time). It’s that there’s also a somewhat-obscure reference to lists compiled by unnamed overseas organisations. Without some kind of transparency about those lists, there is a real rather than theoretical danger over over-blocking.

So why do I seem so calm about this new censorship proposal?

It’s not going to be a “thin end of the wedge” in any serious fashion. There’s still no chance of a legislated filter: this government will never command a majority in both houses of parliament to pass the laws, and a change of government would kill the regime completely.

It’s probably not going to materially affect anybody’s network performance: only those with a serious interest in censorship (pro or anti) even notice the existence of today’s ACMA blacklist.

It’s probably not going to be that effective.

It’s really a cosmetic announcement that lets the government look as if something happened. That’s a depressing commentary on politics, but it would be hard to name any government that didn’t slap a lick of paint on a problem at some point or other, and call it a solution.

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