Australia’s descent into authoritarian censorship seems to be taking a new draconian turn with its treatment of the international whistleblower site Wikileaks. The British tech site The Register claimed overnight “some pages of Wikileaks have been added to the blacklist of websites which Australians are not allowed to look at.” It said some pages were blocked after Wikileaks published a list of websites banned by the Danish government. It is impossible to confirm or deny this and The Register offers no proof of their allegation. However on the same day that the secret Australian version of the list was also leaked, the entire Wikileaks site is unavailable in Australia at the time of writing.
I am reluctant to say it has been banned outright – and it appears it is not just an Australian issue. Following the issue on Twitter, it seems Wikileaks is currently unavailable in Germany also. Both @Jase88 and @Sam6 claim that Wikileaks is not blocked but has crashed due to high traffic, presumably due to the Australian censorship controversy. @drylight said it may be as simple a matter to fix as someone rebooting the Wikileaks server. But whatever has happened, this is not the first time Wikileaks has offended a jurisdiction. A Californian court ordered it be taken down in February last year after the site posted documents revealed that a bank was involved with money laundering and tax evasion.
Wikileaks survived that episode and should bounce back from its bout with the Australian Government too. Earlier today Communications Minister Stephen Conroy condemned the publication of the Australian banned list as “grossly irresponsible”. This was despite the fact that he also claims the list was not the actual ACMA blacklist. Conroy muddied the water by claiming the list undermined efforts to improve cyber-safety and create a safe online environment for children. He also warned chillingly that anyone involved in making this content publicly available would be at serious risk of criminal prosecution. I rang the media contact on Conroy’s press release for a comment on whether Wikileaks (or parts of it) has now been banned but he has not yet returned my call.
The banned list of 2,000 websites showed up some glaring inconsistencies. While there are a large number of child pornography sites and other illegal material, most of the websites listed have no obvious connection to criminal activity. There are online gambling sites, Christian and other religious sites, satanic sites, euthanasia supporters, and straight and gay pornography. Bizarrely the list also includes such recidivists as a Queensland dentist, a tour operator, a firm of “Tuckshop and Canteen Management Consultants" and a Maroochydore kennel boarding company.
The original offending Wikileaks article (now probably banned) from yesterday was a secret censorship list for Denmark. The case is a bit artificial as it was sent to the Australian Communications body ACMA as bait by an anti-censorship group in order to test the "slippery slope" theory. When a commenter posted a link to an anti-abortion website from the list on the discussion forum Whirlpool, ACMA threatened them with an $11,000 a day fine because the site also appeared on the list of websites banned in Australia. Whirlpool promptly deleted the link. It would now appear the slippery slope has turned into a black downhill run. It is no coincidence that the first line in the Wikileaks article is: "The first rule of censorship is that you cannot talk about censorship."
Libertus.net says preventing information flow, communication or the exchange of art, film and writing on the internet is “a task only King Canute would attempt”. Yet, stopping the internet tide is exactly what the Australian Government seems to want to do. Most people are aware of the ongoing “clean feed” controversy however Australia has had Internet censorship laws since 2000. The laws were strengthened in January 2008 to enable a broader range of content unsuitable for children to be ordered taken down from Australian hosted sites. Similar overseas hosted content are added to ACMA's blacklist of prohibited content. And because the list is secret no one knows what is on it. There is no accountability.
QUT academic and privacy expert Anthony Sherratt told Woolly Days there was "some absolutely terrible stuff out there" but the problem lies in who gets to define what is unacceptable. "Putting it under a catch-all of illegal is certainly not the way as society needs to be able to challenge and debate laws," he said. "Life is organic and changes by definition." Meanwhile Guy Rundle says there is no bigger issue than net censorship as it is a fundamental attack on free speech. I agree totally. Rundle concludes his impassioned article thus; “And now someone will tell me that the proposed filter won't be able to blacklist pages like Wikileaks, or whatever. But I won't believe them ... who would...?”
UPDATE (20/03/09): Wikileaks has not yet been censored. It is back on the air and the Australian list can be viewed here.