Dear Government, look, I hate to say we told you so, but … we told you so. On Wednesday. The more you try to hide your controversial Internet blacklist, the bigger you make it, the bigger the incentive for someone to leak it.

For money. For political advantage. For the sheer bl-ody fun of sticking it to The Man. And, yes, maybe someone might even leak it because they’re one of that tiny number of sick b-stards who get off on child p-rnography.

Actually, we — that is, we the Australian people — told you so in October when network engineer Mark Newton wrote about the risks of a leak. Maybe it was even before that because, as Newton told Crikey, “The concept has always been so obvious that I’ve never thought it particularly notable to talk about.”

American bank robber “Slick” Willie Sutton was (probably apocryphally) asked why he robbed banks. “Because that’s where the money is.” ACMA compiles a virtual bank vault of nasty websites and hands the keys to the makers of filter software and from there, it’s planned, every ISP in Australia — including many low-margin businesses which, let’s face it, don’t have the security procedures of an ASIO or an MI5. As yesterday’s leak to whisteblower website Wikileaks proves.

Within minutes of Asher Moses’ story yesterday and his tweet, the blacklist was seen by thousands who would otherwise have never been interested. Yes, the Streisand Effect.

Now, Senator Stephen Conroy reckons the leaked list isn’t the ACMA list. This list has 2395 URLs (specific web page addresses) and ACMA’s has 1600-odd. Wikileaks says the leaked list is what some unnamed censorship software uses when it’s switched to “adult-unfiltered (ACMA) mode” — presumably the ACMA list with stuff added. So it’s at least indicative, and it illustrates the problems inherent in any backlist.

It’s a pretty sh-t piece of work.

A Queensland dentist’s website which was hacked and serving out p-rnography but fixed two years ago? Highly-specific URLs with page-view parameters which only block a specific version of the page but not others? URLs with session ID numbers, which only block one specific user on one day, but allow everyone else through?

I guess we’ll never know who’s responsible for this list. Who’d own up to such breathtaking incompetence?

Then there are those two undeniable facts:

One, a manually-compiled list of 1600 URLs, or Conroy’s planned 10,000, or 50,000, can’t possibly keep up with the vast flow of content generated by 1,581,571,589 Internet users (as of December 2008)  and counting. Remember, Australia’s Internet censorship rules say anything rated MA15+ or higher without an age-verification mechanism is “prohibited” or “potentially prohibited” content. Could ACMA ever have the staff to maintain a list of sufficient scale to be of any real value?

Two, ped-philes don’t distribute their nasties on open websites — unless they’re complete idiots. As Inspector John Rouse told the authors of The P-rn Report, they communicate secretly through peer-to-peer software and other more secure methods.

But all this has been communicated to the Minister many times.

“You get into trouble when politicians start picking technologies,” Conroy was told by his predecessor, Senator Helen Coonan. Maybe he should have listened. Crikey explained 14 months ago why lists and filters won’t work  and why geeks get angry when you ignore that advice.

Maybe the time has come to start listening.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam agrees, and says Conroy should dump the filter trials and ask the industry for advice. After all, there’s 20 years of Internet expertise out there.

“Ask the question of the online community and the child protection community more generally ‘What’s the best way to protect children online?’, whether it’s from being poached in chatrooms, coming across [adult] material, or falling victim to some of the syndicates that are out there — all of the areas which net filtering won’t even go close to touching,” Ludlam said.

Asking people who might know the answer, and who aren’t just trying to sell a magic filter box? Goodness. That sounds like … what is that phrase again? Oh yes. “Evidence-based policy.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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