‘Embarrassed’ ACMA forced to change ways

Link to prohibited Web site causes ACMA to rethink its complaints handling process.

The Australian communications watchdog has modified its complaints handling process following the forced removal of a link to a prohibited Web site.

The decision comes after a threat by the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) to fine Web host Bulletproof Networks up to $11,000 a day for having a link to a banned anti-abortion Web site on Whirlpool.

In early January a Whirlpool community member known as ‘Foad’ lodged a complaint with ACMA about "offensive content" on an anti-abortion site, to which the authority later replied, deeming it prohibited content.

Unknown to ACMA, the complaint was only made after an argument on one of Whirlpool’s forums about whether the ACMA blacklist solely contained child sexual abuse material, and the complainant was only seeking a reaction.

ACMA’s response mistakenly contained the link to the prohibited site, which surged across Internet communities, with some still continuing to display it today.

ACMA is angry because they got caught out in Senate estimates a couple of weeks ago when they were questioned about it, said Electronic Frontier Foundation spokesperson Geordie Guy.

“ACMA did not seek the classification board’s opinion on the matter because apparently they’ve banned similar Web content before, and they were kind of annoyed that the complaint was generally just to see how they’d react not that someone was genuinely morally outraged by the content.

ACMA has stated in Senate estimates that they won’t rule out taking action against that person. But obviously the first thing they’ve done is issue a notice to Whirlpool, or rather Whirlpool’s host.”

In a statement, an ACMA spokesperson said the regulator has modified its replies to complainants to omit the URLs of prohibited content.

"ACMA must advise complainants of the outcomes of their complaints and ACMA's usual practice has been to include the relevant URLs in those responses," the spokesperson said. This measure was taken so complainants could see the action ACMA had taken.

Guy warns that Web hosts are going to have to become content police as ACMA start curtailing people’s freedoms like this.

It's terrible when ACMA starts throwing its weight around and really putting pressure like this on ISPs, who end up being responsible for everything that goes on [their networks], said Guy.

“Particularly when it’s our view that they’re doing so out of embarrassment because they got caught,” said Guy.

“There are people out there who believe that ACMA is needed to protect us from morally outrageous stuff but there’s very few people out there who believe that it’s okay to cover up the fact that you are doing that.”

According to ACMA, there are only a handful of instances from the 6000 investigations completed since January 1, 2000, where a complainant has published its response.

ACMA has not received any other complaints about links to the content concerned.

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