Australians will be blocked from accessing 40 commercial websites that facilitate academic cheating in a move that Education Minister Jason Clare has claimed will “seriously disrupt the operations of the criminals behind them.”

The blocked ‘contract cheating’ sites – which sell students essays or assignments, or can even sit exams on a student’s behalf – are accessed around 450,000 times per month by Australian students that don’t have the time or inclination to work their way through their assignments and exams on their own merits.

Such services “threaten academic integrity and expose students to criminals,” Clare said in announcing the blocks, “who often attempt to blackmail students into paying large sums of money.”

The list of blocked sites is a subset of a larger database of more than 2,333 suspected commercial academic cheating websites – including 579 sites specifically targeting students at Australian higher-education institutions – that the Tertiary Education Quality and Standards Agency (TEQSA) has compiled since a 2014 ministerial direction ordered it to closely monitor the sector.

In 2020, the Commonwealth TEQSA Amendment (Prohibiting Academic Cheating Services) Act followed the lead of a New Zealand law by making it an offence to provide, arrange, or advertise academic cheating services.

The law empowered TEQSA to refer providers of such services to the Commonwealth Director of Public Prosecutions services for civil and criminal sanctions, and to direct Internet service providers and online search engine providers to block access to such services.

The criminalisation of contract cheating will, the explanatory memorandum to the legislation noted at the time, “demonstrate to Australia’s international market of potential students, their parents/guardians, foreign governments, and overseas employers that Australia takes the quality and integrity of its higher education system, its higher education qualifications, and its graduates very seriously.”

Formally blocking the 40 contract cheating sites is a coup for TEQSA, which certifies university courses and oversees academic integrity and receives around $660,000 per year to combat academic cheating services.

Last July, the organisation commenced its first action under its new powers, applying to Federal Court for an injunction that would require 51 telecommunications providers to take “reasonable” steps to disable access to the site

That request was granted in October – paving the way for the new blockage, which has been targeted at the most popular contract cheating sites and uses what Clare called “new special protocols”, developed with telecommunications industry body Communications Alliance and designed to “streamline” the blocking process.

Further down the slippery slope

Yet the targeted blocking of the sites also raises the spectre of ongoing Internet filtering, which has persisted as a contentious issue since it was adopted as official Labor policy in 2007, abandoned by then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy in 2012 after sustained protests, then re-introduced by an ambivalent Coalition government.

Originally intended to protect children online, the filter’s scope was hotly debated amidst concerns it would also block sites discussing euthanasia and assisted suicide.

Assisted-suicide advocates ran formal ‘hacking classes’ to teach concerned citizens how to bypass the filters using proxy Internet services, even as the government moved to block other illegal content including online gambling, movie and TV piracy sites, and websites suspected of being involved in fraudulent activities.

Australia’s law against contract cheating websites has already been hailed as a success by some – yet while many operators have abandoned the Australian market since the law was passed, other countries are watching the companies redouble their efforts elsewhere.

Increasingly aggressive essay mills, UK academics recently observed, are tapping AI essay writing tools and offering students buy-one-get-one-free deals, loyalty schemes, and cashback offers.

It's all part of the professionalisation of a global industry worth billions of dollars per year, amidst growing concerns that companies like $1.1 billion-revenue Chegg straddle the line between well-intentioned student aid and facilitator of cheating.

Chegg says it is "deeply committed to academic integrity" and takes "any attempts to misuse our platform extremely seriously".

However, students are specifically warned off of using Chegg by institutions like Curtin University, which warns that "the use of file sharing and assignment help websites such as are not condoned for use at Curtin. If you are asking someone online or elsewhere to provide you with assessment answers, this should be a major red flag that you are contract cheating."

With lawmakers explicitly not targeting the students that use the sites, the website block may simply benefit the operators that did not make TEQSA’s list – although TEQSA did also publish a reminder for higher education providers to update their academic integrity policies and procedures.

The organisation has also called for members of the public to report suspected contract cheating sites online.

Yet for all the efforts of authorities, one analysis recently noted, “the dark reality is the illegal services are developing at a faster pace than the systems required to curb them…. The all-penetrating issues indicate systemic failures on a global scale that cannot be addressed by an individual academic or university acting alone.”