Thursday, 19 March 2009

Parts of Wikipedia blacklisted in Australia

The Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has added whistleblower website Wikileaks to its secret website blacklist. This comes after Wikileaks published a recent version of the blacklist, which includes Wikipedia pages, in addition to various religious websites and the site of a Queensland dentist.

In February an anti-censorship activist submitted a Wikileaks page (containing a copy of Denmark's secret blacklist!) to ACMA's online complaints facility, as a test of ACMA's guidelines. ACMA blacklisted that page, satisfied that it was "prohibited content" or "potential prohibited content" under the relevant legislation. However Wikileaks then published details of the report, including the correspondence, and then published a leaked copy of the ACMA blacklist from last August. Following this, ACMA blacklisted the entire Wikileaks site.

As of the time of writing, it does not seem possible to access Wikileaks from Australia, so I do not know what is on the leaked blacklist. But media reports indicate that, in addition to the intended targets of child porn sites, there is a substantial minority of other sites blacklisted, including some Wikipedia pages, YouTube videos, and online gambling sites, as well as a few bizarre examples in a tuckshop management company and an animal carer group.

The responsible minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, has denied that Wikileaks' list is the real thing, and one of the ISPs involved in the mandatory internet filtering trial has backed that up, saying that it is not the same as the list supplied to them recently.

Yet whether Wikileaks' list is accurate or not, the attention now being paid to the practices of ACMA in relation to the blacklist has at least exposed the risk to educational sites like Wikipedia posed by similar censorship systems. The ACMA blacklisting scheme is designed to dovetail with Australia's existing content classification system (for films, television etc) by defining "prohibited content" to mean content classified as RC (refused classification) or X 18+ by the Classification Board (and also R 18+ content to which unrestricted access is allowed, and under certain circumstances, M 15+ content).

This system has been criticised in a number of ways, not least because Internet content is subject to the film and television classification rules, rather than the rules for publications (with the result that, for example, a printed newspaper and a newspaper website showing the same material will be treated differently, depending on which version is classified first). Nevertheless, the Classification Board has extensive experience in content classification, and, as it is a singular organisation whose decisions are subject to review, is at least broadly consistent in its application of the guidelines.

The blacklisting scheme goes further, however, and allows ACMA to blacklist not only content which has actually been classified, but also "potential prohibited content", that is, unclassified content which it believes would ultimately be prohibited if it were classified. In practice, this means that ACMA bureaucrats - whose decisions are not subject to the same process of review, and are not even guaranteed to be made in the same way and applying the same process as the Classification Board - can blacklist sites if they think there is a "substantial likelihood" that the content would be prohibited.

Under the National Classification Code (PDF), classification not only depends on what the content depicts, but on the manner in which it is depicted. Relevantly for Wikipedia, educational materials covering subject matter like sexuality will likely be treated differently than other genres of material depicting the same subjects. With this parallel ACMA scheme, there is no guarantee of consistency, no guarantee the code will be correctly applied and no prospect of review. Thus, the public's access to legitimate educational content, such as Wikipedia articles, is subject to the whims of ACMA bureaucrats.

A related problem is that the ACMA blacklist is the basis of the aforementioned proposed mandatory internet filtering scheme in Australia, which aims to filter the Internet at the ISP level. Depending on the way such a scheme (if it is actually instituted, which seems unlikely at this time) is actually implemented by ISPs, we may end up with a situation in which access to Wikipedia is widely blocked, as happened recently in the UK.


aude said...

I can't access right now, either. But, I'm in the states, so either (1) most likely the site is down for everyone (2) or the site is being blocked here too, but I don't think they can block sites here.

Stephen said...

Yes, it can't be reached by TOR here either, so it does seem to be down. And the blacklist is not yet mandatory: at this time it's up to ISPs or providers of filtering software to use the blacklist if they want to.

Mike.lifeguard said...

Wikileaks != Wikipedia

Wikileaks is not affiliated with the Wikimedia Foundation or Wikipedia.

Stephen said...

Yes, but as I said, Wikileaks was blacklisted for publishing what was said to be an recent version of the blacklist, which included some Wikipedia pages.

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