Google warns of unfettered website blocking power

Google warns of unfettered website blocking power

Summary: Google has asked the Australian government to review the power given to agencies to compel ISPs to block websites.

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Google has told the Australian government that agencies using Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to block websites could result in "over-broad blocking" and should be reviewed.

In April 2013, a bungle by the Australian Securities Investment Commission, that resulted in the accidental blocking of customer access to 250,000 websites for at least two ISPs, revealed that three Commonwealth government agencies had been using Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to compel ISPs to block customer access to websites on their behalf.

A Freedom of Information request late last year revealed that when news broke of the government using this power to block websites, Google's head of public policy and government affairs in Australia and New Zealand, Iarla Flynn informally raised concerns with the department about the regime. Now, as part of the new Coalition government's review of deregulation in the communications portfolio, Flynn has put it on the record (PDF) that Google is concerned about the use of Section 313 powers.

"It appears that [Section 313] has been interpreted broadly by various Australian government agencies to include the take down of websites that are deemed illegal. Google believes that Section 313 does not contain sufficient safeguards, and could potentially impact significantly on the availability of information and content on the internet through the overbroad blocking of websites," Flynn said.

"Google submits that it is essential that systems and measures be created to ensure there is a transparent process in place for any removal of websites by government departments and agencies."

Flynn added that the government should consider whether Section 313 should remain in the Telecommunications Act, or whether it should be moved under the government's broader national security powers.

Yesterday, ZDNet reported that ASIC, the Australian Federal Police (AFP), and one unnamed national security agency had indicated to the Department of Communications that they intended to keep using the powers in the Telecommunications Act to force ISPs to block websites in the future.

Google also called for the government to review safe harbour rules to protect online companies from the actions of its users.

"Under current Australian law, online intermediaries are potentially exposed to liability for unlawful content published by users (including defamation, hate speech, and pornography), regardless of the fact that they have no practical means of preventing the content from being published," Flynn said.

"Google urges the government to have regard to the need for clear and robust safe harbours for online intermediaries as a central plank of promoting a flourishing online environment."

Online retailer eBay also said (PDF) that online platform intermediaries need to be offered safe harbour from liability for what its users do on its website.

The issue of safe harbour often comes up in the context of copyright, where ISPs argue that they should not be held liable for the actions of their users. As the Australian government mulls options for combating piracy, including implementing a graduated response scheme for users caught downloading copyright-infringing material, Flynn said Google would be "disappointed" if the government went ahead with this plan.

"We would be disappointed if the government decided to go down the route of overly harsh regulation to combat piracy without considering evidence from around the world that this would likely be costly for businesses to implement with little effect," he said.

In Music Rights Australia's submission (PDF), the group said that the 2012 High Court ruling in iiNet's favour against the copyright industry showed that safe harbour rules currently in place are not working to address copyright infringement, and stated that any deregulation from the communications portfolio should result in "an internet which works for everyone and importantly [results] in a copyright environment which gives incentives for ongoing investment in new innovative services and talent".

Topics: Censorship, Google, Government, Government AU, Piracy, Australia

About

Armed with a degree in Computer Science and a Masters in Journalism, Josh keeps a close eye on the telecommunications industry, the National Broadband Network, and all the goings on in government IT.

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6 comments
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  • There should be no unfettered blocking power

    If they wish to block X site, they should be required to go to a judge and get a ruling saying "Yes, this is illegal by Australian law!" in order to block the site in question.

    If they cannot get that ruling, then the fact is that the site in question is probably NOT illegal by Australian law.

    Website blocking is a lost cause anyway with things like TOR and i2p out there today. Countries should just realize "We cannot keep people from getting to anything out there!" and stop trying to put into place these 'morality' laws that try to keep people from seeing X or Y!
    Lerianis10
  • Hands off!

    Australia has become a nanny country. Our freedom is being restricted more and more each year. This government, especially with Mr Magoo Brandis sticking his nose where it doesn't belong, is likely to block more sites than you would normally expect. It seems strange that a criminal like Brandis who rorted his entitlement expenses, claiming on them to attending a friends wedding would be so concerned about copyright infringement. Then there is Murdoch lurking in the shadows, giving the orders he expects and probably demands to be carried out.
    Lastofthegoodguys
    • So true.

      You see these pollies are above the law and think they know better. A few years back, Fred Nile in NSW wanted to ban the sale of XXX movies in NSW, but the pollies in NSW should watch them first before they were banned to ensure they banned the right movies.
      Good old Fred wants to get his rocks off by watching porn, but not Mr & Mrs Aussie couple.
      Mudrat70
  • The Judiciary should be

    determining what Australians are allowed to view and hear.

    For some reason the current politicians seem to think that they have the right to censor what Australian citizens are able to see, hear and read.

    A basic tenant of democracy is that the citizens are able to not only view and see what material they want without restriction but are also able to discuss and disseminate this information. To deny this right denies the basic right to democracy.

    Open slather is not a reality but any restrictions MUST be subject to independent judicial review and not be implemented with the preconceive prejudice of politicians
    Bob.H-819a5
  • Does anyone think Tony Mussolini cares

    Secret Squirrel has never been so busy as since the election.

    Apparently operation sovereign borders was illegal in Australian law, so the government excepted the officials concerned from the law. Hmm give Barak a ring, he probably has advise on how to run secret offshore military operations. Water boarding anyone
    MadMattAu
  • ISP Blocking

    The Australian government will eventually reverse itself on this issue, if they don't, the online Web will isolate Australia like a 'cancer'!
    electric800