Australia to Open Website Blocking Inquiry

The Australian federal government founded a committee to inquire into law enforcement’s use of the Telecommunications Act on Wednesday, July 16. The inquiry will specifically look into the Australian Securities and and Investments Commission (ASIC) alongside the Australian Federal Police (AFS). These agencies both shut down multiple websites under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, with ASIC admitting to unintentional online disruption after they inadvertently blocked 250,000 websites in the spring of 2013.

website blocking

Photo: Harishrawat11 / Wikimedia Commons

A May 2013 ASIC meeting revealed the agency had a previous record of accidentally blocking over 1,000 websites while targeting only one. One month later the same agency made headlines on tech-related websites around the world after blocking a quarter million websites. Australian tech news site IT News first suggested federal agencies may be taking advantage of Section 313 after a third unnamed agency was found making similar website blocking demands. The federal government refers to the third organization only as a “national security agency” and has repeatedly declined to disclose any further information regarding the identity or motives behind its behavior.

ASIC revealed the majority of the 250,000 blocked websites “contained no substantive content” and, following the 2013 controversy, promised a yearly public report on its Section 313 activities.

Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam issued a public statement on his website accusing the government of a “secret Internet filter,” referring to an unpopular government proposal earlier that year to establish a mandatory Internet filter. Ludlam asserted that ASIC and AFP activities amounted to a “filter by stealth” whereby law enforcement agencies disrupted access to online content without transparency or public statements of explanation.

The Telecommunications Act has been in effect since 1997, but the past two years have seen increased use by law enforcement. Section 313: Obligations of Carriers and Carrier Service Providers states than an ISP must do its best “to prevent telecommunications networks and facilities from being used in, or in relation to, the commission of offences against the laws of the Commonwealth or of the States and Territories.” The section continues on to say carriage service providers are obligated to cooperate with legal authorities in “enforcing the criminal law” and “safeguarding national security.”

The Australian public heavily opposed a government proposal in 2013 to establish a mandatory ISP filter. Electronic Frontiers Australia (PDF) cited a primary concern that the filter would “block access to material that is currently legal to possess and view.” The proposal dissipated after public outcry, but many service providers and online industries accuse recent government activities under Section 313 as a covered-up means of creating a de-facto filter.

After more than a year of public statements from corporations and politicians, the federal government is opening a parliamentary committee to undertake an inquiry into ASIC and AFP behavior.

The investigation will address whether these agencies’ uses of Section 313 have been appropriate or abusive. The current law does not explicitly require transparency, but the inquiry will review whether legal adjustments are necessary, with the committee calling it “an important public policy question.” Other questions will include the authority of who can use Section 313 to block websites, circumstances in which it is appropriate, and accountability procedures.

Google has issued a public complaint against Australian law enforcement. In a December 2013 statement, the company accused ASIC and AFP of abusing the law to take down web content en masse and called for legislative action. Head of public policy Iarla Flynn claimed law enforcement has been interpreting the law far too broadly with regards to monitoring online content. Flynn suggested moving Section 313 out of the Telecommunications Act to more appropriate national security authorities, and requested “safe harbor” consideration to protect website owners from liability over users’ unlawful activities.

Google’s regional public policy heads have made public statements in other cases of online censorship. It remains to be seen whether Section 313 activities will result in strained business relations with international corporations.

Google officially shut down its China offices in 2011 after failing to dissuade the national government from using disruptive online policies. Although Section 313 activities do not amount to the so-called “Great Firewall of China,” the incident revealed that online corporations will not shy away from taking decisive action in the face of incompatible values.