More tap dancing on Aussie online blacklist

The Australian government is still wrestling with its attempt to censor the Internet and the huge domestic and international outcry it has generated. And its latest wheeze in an attempt to convince taxpayers that all is above board and fair is to suggest that the grossly inaccurate and supposedly secret blacklist should be confidentially reviewed by a panel of 'eminent Australians.'

The intentions of the government became apparent last year when Wikileaks published an alleged blacklist which the Australian Communications and Media Authority had told ISPs to ban as part of a trial for the banning of specific, government agency-selected websites. The list included many inaccuracies, among them the inclusion of legitimate and licensed websites like Betfair, indicating that government bureaucrats had not done their homework diligently. And the fact that the process was so shrouded in secrecy and sought to interfere with the freedom of the Internet triggered a major civil society and political furore that is still causing the government headaches.

This week The Age newspaper reported that the federal government is considering having its secret blacklist of banned websites reviewed by a panel of eminent Australians or a parliamentary committee in an effort to introduce more transparency to the controversial internet censorship program.

The secret blacklist, which The Age reports has actually been in existence since 2000, is maintained by the Australian Communications and Media Authority, which considers sites for inclusion based on complaints from the public, groups and law enforcement agencies, but does not permit open publication (in fact it is a criminal offence in Australia to publish it). However, it can do little about Wikileaks, and Communications Minister Stephen Conroy's immediate reaction was that the list published by the whistle blower last year was not the real thing.

The Age correctly points out that the secrecy surrounding the blacklist has led to criticisms that websites could be listed without the operators knowing it and without any opportunity to challenge inclusion.

In the latest development, Conroy told a Senate estimates hearing that the government was "considering options for greater transparency and accountability in respect of the blacklist", including a regular review of the list by a panel of eminent persons or a parliamentary committee or a review of complaints by the classification board.

This is unlikely to qwell the now considerable row the whole project has caused and the fierce criticism on free speech and pragmatic technical grounds it has generated. Conroy's current position is that the results of the trials would be considered along with possible transparency measures before the government makes a final decision on permanent implementation of a defined censorship policy.

The Age reports that some 30 000 customers have been invited to participate in the trials by the nine internet service providers that have been persuaded by government to take part. Senator Conroy has promised to release a public report on the results of the trials, which are expected in July 2009.

The blacklist contains 977 websites. Senator Conroy said the Government hoped to expand the list through co-operation with international agencies.

Senator Conroy has said the filtering efforts would focus on "refused classification" material, such as child sexual abuse and instruction in crime. He did not specifically comment on Internet gambling sites.

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