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Sep 14, 2009

ACMA iTunes and the failure of net filtering

The underlying Australian internet censorship process is unworkable, and always will be. Opponents of the filter are busy proving it, with complaints about iTunes selling MA15+ films without requiring age verification.

Whether Australia’s internet “filtering” trials are successful … whether “success” has been defined, which it hasn’t … whether the Opposition baits Senator Stephen Conroy to produce the trial report … none of these things matter. The underlying censorship process is unworkable, and always will be. Opponents of the filter are busy proving it.

In January, network engineer Mark Newton filed a complaint with ACMA about Apple’s iTunes Store, which was selling the movies V for Vendetta and American Gangster. Both are rated MA15+ and are being sold for profit. iTunes must therefore have a restricted access (age verification) system, but it doesn’t.

An open-and-shut case? No. It took ACMA seven months to resolve.

iTunes content is partially hosted in Australia on the Akamai content distribution network, a system that ensures customers download a file from a nearby server, reducing long-distance internet traffic. By the letter of the law, ACMA should have served a takedown notice on Akamai. Instead, they finally ruled that for Australian customers, iTunes may no longer offer the “Gift this Movie” function.

“I’ve told ACMA that it is the single weirdest decision I’ve ever seen an Australian Government agency make, bar none,” Newton told Crikey.

“The films are still available, 12-year-olds can still use prepaid credit cards bought at their local Caltex service stations, or iTunes gift cards bought at Woolies to obtain them. But no Australian of any age is allowed to give movies as gifts to anybody else of any age,” Newton said.

Also in January, a complaint was filed by Geordie Guy, a board member of watchdog group Electronic Frontiers Australia and now technology policy co-ordinator for the Democrats (remember them?). Guy noted that BigPond Movies was selling Reservoir Dogs, rated R18+, again without an age verification system.

“After six months I got an email notification saying that the content that I was complain about was no longer offered at that location, so the investigations had been discontinued,” Guy told Crikey.

Did ACMA have a quiet word with BigPond in there? Neither organisation was able to respond before today’s deadline.

No content was added to ACMA’s secret blacklist, so the special exemption to Freedom of Information legislation doesn’t apply. Guy has filed an FOI request for any and all documents related to this investigation, any other investigations into BigPond content, and the next five internet content complaints lodged chronologically since his. ACMA’s response is due in a few days.

A fundamental flaw in Australia’s internet censorship process is that it’s based on public complaints. That’s why the blacklist of prohibited content hosted overseas is just a couple thousand internet addresses and, as revealed in Senate Estimates after questions from Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, the grand total of takedown notices issued for content hosted inside Australia since 1 January 2000 is just 372 items.

“It took Geordie and I 15 minutes to lodge our complaints, which turned into seven months of effort and untold thousands of dollars in lawyers’ bills for ACMA to resolve,” Newton said.

Imagine the mayhem if every anti-censorship campaigner started hitting ACMA’s red complaint button.

Even if every complaint was real and handled properly, how could ACMA possibly keep up with the reality of the live web?

“Implementation of censorship schemes always produces grey areas, a fuzzy and controversial boundary between ‘censored’ and ‘not censored’. There is no way that a government can win when it makes a decision in the grey area, because they’ll always annoy the anti- or pro-side of the debate regardless of how they rule.”

Take, for example, an ACMA decision from August where a page including Robert Mapplethorpe’s photographs of a man masturbating and a man with his arm inserted in another man’s anus was not prohibited because it was rated PG.

“This must be the kind of thing that’d make Jim Wallace’s head explode,” says Newton, referring to the Australian Christian Lobby’s spokesperson.

None of this is Conroy’s fault. He inherited Australia’s fucked-up system for internet censorship. Rather than trying to implement a filter that automates a highly-flawed blacklist, perhaps it needs a complete rethink.

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2 thoughts on “ACMA iTunes and the failure of net filtering

  1. Gail

    I’d guess this should have Stilgherrian’s byline?

    Yet more examples of ACMA general ineffectual operation. They are still forced by law to apply censorship designed for children to these complaints.

    Our whole classification system needs a major overhaul. It is a mish-mash of junk added for political expediency over a period of many years.

  2. Stilgherrian

    @Gail: Oh, yeah, I wrote this, and I see the byline has been fixed. Thank you, nameless minion! And I agree 110% that Australia’s online censorship system is a mish-mash of politically expedient junk.

    Since I filed this story, I received both Telstra and ACMA’s responses to my questions.

    Telstra media spokesbloke Craig Middleton writes:

    Yes we were approached by ACMA who had received a complaint from a member of the public. The ACMA inquiry did not proceed to investigation because BigPond Movie’s licence to offer Pulp Fiction had lapsed and it had been removed from our catalogue.

    BigPond Movies had not received any other similar complaints and complies with [Broadcasting Services Act] controls which prevent access by persons aged under 18 to R-classified material. This is achieved via the use of a credit card subscription where credit cards are only issued in Australia to those 18 and above.

    ACMA’s response confirms this:

    In the course of the investigation the ACMA requested BigPond to provide information about the service’s compliance with the requirements of Restricted Access System Declaration 2007. BigPond subsequently advised that it had lost the commercial rights to sell the content that was the subject of the complaint, and that the content was therefore no longer available on the service.

    As both Mark Newton and Geordie Guy told me, anyone can buy prepaid disposable credit card numbers from a variety of retail outlets, so this is no longer a workable way of validating a user’s age.

    None of this is ACMA’s fault, really. They’re just trying to implement the law as best they can with limited resources.

    Also, yes, the movie in question was Pulp Fiction not Reservoir Dogs. It’s all Tarantino, so same thing.