Ceci n'est pas une blacklist

Ceci n'est pas une blacklist

Summary: Even the dim-witted bad guys in the Bond flick Quantum of Solace know that concentrating lots of power in a small place may not be the best idea. So how could Stephen Conroy and ACMA have been surprised when the alleged web filter blacklist made its debut?


There is a moment in the Bond flick Quantum of Solace when the obligatory bad guys, ensconced in a luxury bunker in the Bolivian desert, express their concern about something.

Daniel Craig

Bond, James Bond
(Credit: American Broadcasting Companies, Inc)

"It's just the fuel cells," the generic general-and-all-round-bad guy laments. "The whole compound runs on them." "Sounds highly unstable," his associate replies.

Knowing what happens when you cross James Bond and something highly unstable, it's a given that we can expect him to make an explosive appearance; as always, 007 doesn't disappoint. We inherently just know that concentrating lots of power in a small space cannot be a good idea.

Perhaps Communications Minister Stephen Conroy should watch more Bond, because he seems to have been genuinely caught off guard when a list of internet pornography and other associated sites, purporting to be ACMA's controversial blacklist, was published to the world by Wikileaks — driving filter opponents into a frenzy and pushing ACMA and Conroy into full-scale crisis management.

I was on the phone with ACMA head Chris Chapman, discussing an unrelated matter, when an associate entered his office to have him sign off on the final wording of ACMA's press release. I asked Chapman about the list, and his response — "the statement I'm just signing off on says that it is not the ACMA blacklist" — came in a tone that suggested he had had less stressful days.

Whether you believe it was the real list or just an unrelated catalogue of depravity as an apparently Magritte-inspired Conroy insisted, the event gave us a glimpse of the panic that will ensue when the blacklist controlling Australia's filter is eventually published (and it will, I am sure, be published).

Yet was this list the correct one? ACMA and Conroy say no, that the real list is much shorter. This in itself is a strange admission since many of the sites on the Wikileaks' list would, from their descriptions, seem to be clear candidates for the filter; if this list has more than 1,000 sites that the government hasn't gotten around to adding to the blacklist, well, just how useful (read: comprehensive) is it anyways?

Even if it wasn't the list, and was just some pervert's Firefox bookmarks file, the quick and fevered response suggests that Wikileaks certainly hit a nerve; why else would Conroy be talking about ACMA referring the matter to the Australian Federal Police? Why would he be making statements like "the leak and publication of prohibited URLs is grossly irresponsible" — yet in the same breath telling us the Wikileaks list was not in fact full of prohibited URLs?

If his denial is correct, then Wikileaks' list is not one of the prohibited URLs, and while its publication may be gross it does not qualify as being "grossly irresponsible" in his terminology. Even his use of the word "irresponsible" is curious, as it implies that the responsible thing is for everyone to play along and keep the list secret. He still seems to assume broad support for his filter, while there is in fact so much resistance to it that hundreds were motivated to rally against it in the streets. History has shown that sort of thing doesn't happen over just any issue.

One could make the argument that Conroy's crusade for web filtering means he bears the full responsibility for the publication of Wikileaks' directory of smut; will he count that on his list of achievements as the Rudd Government argues its case for re-election?

Supporters of Conroy's web filter may point to the list as evidence that the web is replete with smut, but this is hardly a surprise. Others will point out that making lists like this, which are more than likely to emerge in some form at some time, is in and of itself dangerous since it concentrates on otherwise widely disseminated information in a potentially explosive and damaging package.

Media outlets aren't broadly linking to the Wikileaks page in question, but anybody with even cursory Google skills can find it in around 15 seconds.

One could make the argument that Conroy's crusade for web filtering means he bears the full responsibility for the publication of Wikileaks' directory of smut; will he count that on his list of achievements as the Rudd Government argues its case for re-election?

Yet the response also raises thorny legal questions: has an offence been committed by publishing a URL — just a string of characters that is in and of itself no less offensive than www.dbcde.gov.au — even if it's not accessed?

Even if so, how can people be punished for publishing a prohibited URL if they have no way of knowing it's prohibited? If I were to publish the name and address of the neighbourhood sex shop — which is sandwiched in a local strip mall between a takeaway shop and, ironically enough, a retail front for a local ISP — would that be an offence? Or, even, offensive?

I've already elucidated my argument that while anything stemming the flow of child pornography is a good idea, Conroy's filtering approach is simply incompatible with the ideals of a free and democratic society. The events of the past week show that it's also a catalyst for problems — and will remain a rallying point for internet libertarians determined to expose the blacklist to the world. The inevitable publication of other "real" blacklists will have regulators jumping at shadows and in a disadvantaged position to promote a filtering scheme whose credibility has been seriously undermined.

Some good may yet come from this exercise, however. If the real list were found to include objectionable but not inherently illegal content, as many fear, it would shatter the air of legitimacy about the whole process that Conroy has worked so hard to create. Indeed, the list already does apparently include such content: witness ACMA's recent stand-over tactics against Whirlpool.

The site in question, like many on the Wikileaks' list, may be graphically nasty and morally objectionable (I haven't seen it) but descriptions do not suggest it falls within the brief of prohibited content which, as outlined by Conroy, includes "child sexual abuse imagery, bestiality, sexual violence, detailed instruction in crime, violence or drug use and/or material that advocates the doing of a terrorist act."

Even if the ACMA blacklist were published, down to the letter, Conroy and ACMA would likely just deny it. Which means we will never know just what kind of web filtering regime we are subject to.

Expanding the web filter to include sites for political or ideological motivations would taint the whole process, validate critics' claims of intellectual censorship, and leave the government no option but to scrap the whole heaving, lurching, onerous, bloated, misguided exercise altogether. For this reason, Conroy and ACMA must be fastidious about ensuring the list's character and content will hold up to scrutiny against the stated criteria for inclusion.

Of course, the government's response confirms what we may have already have inferred: even if the ACMA blacklist were published, down to the letter, Conroy and ACMA would likely just deny it. Which means we will never know just what kind of web filtering regime we are subject to. Which undermines the whole concept of transparent governance that Rudd's government was supposed to bring.

Which makes me wonder, yet again, why Conroy is even bothering with all this when existing opt-in solutions were more than adequate. Fuel cells, after all, may have sounded like a good idea at the time, but I'll bet the Bond baddies were soon wishing they'd accepted the lower contractor's bid and just gone with good old-fashioned petrol generators.

What do you think? Was it the blacklist or wasn't it? Has the leak undermined the real list's effectiveness forever? Or is it just confirmation we need the filter even more than Conroy believes?

Topics: Censorship, Government AU, Security


Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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  • It doesn't make any difference

    It doesn't make any difference whether this was ACMA's list or somebody else's - either way it demonstrates how compiling a blacklist is a dumb idea - it will inevitably get leaked, and then you're worse off than you were in the first place.
  • Responsibility

    Hi David.

    You've posed a question about whether Minister Conroy is partly responsible for the leak because he's stirred up the hornets' nest.

    It actually goes deeper than that.

    On Dec 23 last year, Asher Moses writing for the SMH exposed a report Senator Conroy had received some ten months earlier, commissioned by his predecessor, into ISP filtering.

    The Minister clearly didn't like the conclusions of the report in the context of the current debate (the report said it wasn't feasible and even if it was it's a dumb idea), so he spent most of a year pretending he'd never seen it right up until it was leaked.

    The report can be found here:
    If you examine pages 40 and 84 of the report, you'll see concerns raised about the security and confidentiality of the blacklist. If you turn to page 31 of the International Survey appendix, you'll see it again.

    Senator Conroy received expert advice in February 2008 raising serious questions about the blacklist's confidentiality. He's had 13 months to review ACMA's security processes to ensure that they only divulged the list to organizations who had been audited to assure the Australian public that the list would be just as safe in their hands as it had been in ACMA's.

    And he failed utterly to do anything about it.

    Those of us who live in the real world knew it was only a matter of time 'til the leak occurred, and we said so, and we were right. Meanwhile people living in the Minister's delusional bubble-world were warned of the inevitable outcome but simply imagined that it'd all be ok if they just shouted "Pedophile!" loudly enough.

    So now that the list has been leaked, a panicked Minister is all over it like flies on a barbecue. Now that its security has been completely eviscerated, our erstwhile Minister all of a sudden cares about its security.

    Why didn't he care about it this time last week? And if leaking the blacklist is so harmful to children, and his inaction has allowed its release, what exactly do Australian taxpayers pay him to do all day?
  • Black List, what Black List?

    Think about it, this is the internet. The best way to have something published on the intenet is to say it's not for publication, it's a secret. Well, thats like a challenge. They also said DVD encryption was unbreakable. It's going to come out. Why not be open and publish the list, make it available to everybody, it's useless because these are the blocked sites. This way they can come clean about what is being blocked.
  • They can't publish it

    The Govt can't voluntarily make it available because the Internet is global and other countries don't censor. Even if they had an effective means of enforcing the blacklist here, publication would mean that our government would be providing links to pornography to citizens of other countries.

    Now, you and I know that it's going to be published anyway, voluntarily or not, so as you point out the practical effect of trying to keep it secret is pretty minimal.

    The only safe path for the Government is to not maintain the blacklist at all. Why is it considered ok for our Government to be in the business of maintaining a database of pornography?
  • Two words

    I have only two words for you sir!

    "Well Put!"
  • Porn Database you say ?

    They are in Canberra of all places Mark.

    I would think there be no better place TO host a database of porn, fits right in line with the rest of the adult industry in Australia (which im sure also would have a lot to say about this whole debacle).

    Its rather ludicrous that conroy, acma et. al. all feign outrage at the leak, when they have both previously been warned on many occasions that this was going to happen.

    Its the mentality of "ohh shell be right" that has got them to this place. I wonder if such lase` faire management is systemic within the communications portfolio. The NBN comes to mind.
  • Conflated Objectives

    Two things have become obvious to me in the last week or two:

    1. Stephen Conroy appears to have realised that the only content category that is universally agreed upon for manditory blocking is his core content target; child pornography

    2 the only remaining objective that was stated in Labors electoral pitch was the protection of Children

    The minister refuses to abandon his idealogically driven blunder, and now we are descending into the utterly farcical; we are seriously discussing a $44 million dollar initiative to <b>protect children from child pornography</b> as if they have suddenly morphed into pedo-pedophiles....

    Ms Mcmenamin seems to have unconsciously picked this up and is already howling about how the nations 15 yr olds are undoubtedly racing to check out every URL on the leaked list, in another display of wowser knee-jerk commentary.

    The minister has to abandon one of his two objectives in order to have a chance of obtaining something meaningful:

    he can either:
    a) focus on blocking 'the worst of the worst' from everyone. Do it simply, with minimal technical impact, like the very delicately implemented, yet still problematic IWF filter in the UK. It would cost a lot less than $44 and it would at least be a nod in the direction of restricting the activity of pedophiles.

    b) refocus on a 'OPT-IN' filter that can contain any old content category that any bleeding heart can argue should be kept from our childrens eyes. I say Opt-in because it simply must be in order to be technically feasible, cost efficient, effective, and palatable to the population. being a parent I know which one I might find give me something useful for my tax dollars.

    There's nothing, however, in any proposal I have seen that would make the internet a 'safe' place for my kids though.
  • Option A is a loser for him

    If he picks option (a), then that'll mean he'll need a second blacklist consisting of "worst of the worst" material.

    How long do you think it'll be before that one ends up on Wikileaks too?

    Secret ISP blacklists from Finland, Denmark, Thailand, Norway and now Australia have been published. I'm not sure how disconnected from reality you'd need to be to think publication isn't inevitable, but I wonder whether Conroy is bloody-minded enough to find out.
  • Great blog entry

    To the blog author David Braue, congrats on a great article. There's been a lot written of late on this topic but you've summed it up nicely.
  • It isn't Conroy's List

    Despite all these bits of bluster can I remind EVERYONE that what has been leaked isn't "Conroy's list". Even if the list were exactly the ACMA "blacklist" this list has been maintained by ACMA (or the BSA before it) since 2000 as a cnsequence of the 1999 COALITION legislation.

    What's more this list was obtained from cracking a piece of distributed filtering software...not from the distribution of the list as part of the trial. It is unsurprising that the IIA preferred approach of PC based filtering and hence the distribution of 35,000 copies of the list makes it easier to crack!

    Finally, if there is a filter in place the list of sites does not need to have the same level of secrecy wrapped around it.

    Mark Newton says "we said it would only be a matter of time till the list was leaked" - well, that's great, but tis leak has nothing (apart from motivation) to do with the trial - it is a leak from the EXISTING regime, indicating the need to get on and change it.
  • @It isn't Conroy's List

    "Mark Newton says "we said it would only be a matter of time till the list was leaked" - well, that's great, but tis leak has nothing (apart from motivation) to do with the trial - it is a leak from the EXISTING regime, indicating the need to get on and change it."

    I'm not exactly sure whether it is relevent it's the real ACMA list or a fact list. The bottom line is that the actions taken by Conroy in regards to the filter have promoted for lists like this to be published. I don't know if you've seen the list on wikileaks or not but I have, and it is to put a bluntly a yellowpages of porn (amongst other things) sites.

    I personally don't spend my time actively searching for porn but am aware of a number of sites, but the list here is far beyond what I'd say any normal person could accumulate.

    Whether or not this list is the ACMA one by his actions Conroy has promoted for it to be published, and indirectly he has promoted it's spread.
  • @It isn't Conroy's List

    You do realise of course that it didn't take 35000 people to crack the list, but rather just one?
    And that implementing mandatory filtering in every ISP wll result in needing to distribute the list to some 700 ISP's around the country?

    The filtering product was trivial to crack. I've done it myself. The only reason it leaked now, and not sooner, is because until the Government started pushing for mandatory filtering Nobody Cared what was on the list.

    You also realise, I presume, that there is no Internet Censorship product in the word which isn't completely trivial to bypass? this means of course that the list *Does* need to be just as secret, because no filter can prevent anybody from accessing any content on the 'Net if they know it exists. Also, if, as you say, the list doesn't need to be as secret because the filter will stop Australians from accessing the sites even if they knew what they were (it won't) what about everyone else on the planet? how do you propose to prevent a kid in America from using the list? your third paragraph is invalid.

    The list is the ACMA blacklist - at least the march 18 version on wikileaks is anyway. The list, including the july, august, march 11 and march 18 versions were all the Acma list as used in a filtering product. The vast differences between the 11th and 18th of march lists would seem to indicate that the filtering vendor had not been removing URL's that ACMA had removed from their list.

    Finaly, how do you propose to change the 'regime'? If there exists a list, then the filters will need to compare requested URL's against it. It is inherently available, and if its mandatory then IT WILL CONTINUE TO LEAK. It only requires One person with access to the list to be motivated to leak it, and there are MANY motivated people out there.

    The only safe list is one which does not exist at all.
  • Wikileaks


    Wikileaks does not post any leaks without them being from CREDIBLE SOURCES.

    You really think Wikileaks has the time and money to threaten Conjob & ACMA with legal action [to protect the source] because it was a fraudulent list?
  • Hear, Hear!

    Mark, spot on.

    Can I suggest a register of what you and many of those who actually understand how the internet works claimed would happen and the current status.

    Claim: the list would leak. Status: a list has leaked. Minister and ACMA deny it is "the" list, but are behaving as if it is. Of course, would they ever admit it if it was the real one?

    Claim: leaking a list would encourage people to look at them Status: ???

    Claim: the list would contain more than illegal sites. Status: the list contains more than just illegal sites. Even if the published list is not the real one, if there are fewer than 1,061on the 'fake' list, then the 'real' list must contain legal sites.

    Claim: the filter will slow the internet. Status: proven in previous study
  • A further thought

    After posting this, I realised that it would not be fair not to list the claims of supporters of the filter. I then tried to think of one and couldn't. Sure, there are plenty of clichés like "think of the kiddies" and "if you are against the filter then you are in favour of the pedophiles", but I could not come up with one concrete, quantifiable, and measurable benefit this filter is supposed to provide. Its supporters have never claimed that it will stop pedophiles being pedophiles or that it will reduce the quantity of kiddie porn posted to the internet. If they want to claim that it will stop people viewing it, then its inability to filter P2P networks and traffic via anonymous proxies disproves that already.

    So, it's over to supporters of the filter. Can you name one tangible benefit that can be measured by which the success or otherwise of the filter can be assessed?
  • @A further thought

    "If they want to claim that it will stop people viewing it, then its inability to filter P2P networks and traffic via anonymous proxies disproves that already."

    Assuming that the list on wikileaks even remotely contains some of the links on the ACMA list then you could also say there is now an issue of those sites now being more publically available, and access to "kiddieporn" is more accessible to those disturbed individuals interested in it but unsure where to find it.

    I went through the wikileaks list the other night when the March 18th list was published and found quite a few of the porn sites contained images that had people of a questionable age (not saying they were definately under 18 but it wouldn't shock me if they were). I've got no intention of looking at them (that back button in the browser got a workout, not to mention Tor) but prior to that list I would have had no idea where to find them even if I had of wanted to.

    So far the filter hasn't stopped anyone from viewing "kiddieporn", it's actually done the opposite and made it more easily accessible.
  • @@A further thought

    Terry, I couldn't agree more, but that is an argument against the filter. I'm just trying to find one for the filter.
  • @@@A further thought

    Without someone trying to push an agenda or personal vendetta I don't think you'll find many arguments for the filter.
  • Keep spinning, Verity

    The leaks from Finland, Denmark, Thailand and Norway were all from ISP censorship systems; Richard Clayton successfully demonstrated a reverse engineering attack against the IWF scheme before stopping to preserve his academic ethics.

    Do you seriously believe that giving it to ISPs instead of PC censorware vendors makes the slightest bit of difference?

    'cos I was right about my prediction before, and I can easily make another one that I'll be right about too: If the list is distributed only to ISPs, it'll be leaked then too.
  • 4x@A further thought ;-)

    Terry, I'm just trying to find one. You'd think that if the government was going to spend millions of our tax dollars on this damn thing, they would have at least one goal in mind. I just want to know what it is.

    So, back to the filter's supporters. What is it?