How the Australian government can block sites without 'filtering'

How the Australian government can block sites without 'filtering'

Summary: If the Australian government is so concerned about websites "radicalising" young Muslims, but wants to avoid another internet filter controversy, we are returning to the unresolved tensions surrounding Section 313 notices.

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For a government that is, at least on the surface, opposed to across the board mandatory internet filtering, the options for dealing with so-called terror websites that are "radicalising" young Muslims in Australia leave it open to bringing back controversy surrounding powers to ask ISPs to block websites with zero public transparency.

Last week as the government announced plans to improve the spying powers granted to ASIO in the Telecommunications (Interception and Access) Act, Attorney-General George Brandis said he was concerned about websites and social media being used to "radicalise" young Muslims in Australia to go fight in Iraq and Syria.

"Well, social media and the internet is one of our deepest problems. And, you know, I don't like to hear you say, you know, they weren't radicalised by Imams, they were radicalised by the internet. Of course they weren't radicalised by Imams, because although there are a couple of Imams who we have a problem with, the Imams are a source of peace and community engagement," he said on Sky News.

"The internet because it is such a pervasive medium, it is so difficult to control access to it and what young people might see on the internet makes it all the more important that we have a healthy community engagement strategy."

While none of the recommendations from chapter four of the Joint Standing Committee's report into telecommunications interception laws cover internet filtering, the concern within the government over access to these websites is apparent.

The government was at pains last week to point out that it had no plans to resurrect the failed opt-out internet filtering policy that was dropped just two days out from the election after first revealed by ZDNet, but there is still a method that the government can use to block these websites: Section 313 notices.

These controversial notices empower government agencies to request telecommunications companies to block websites believed to be in contravention of Australian law. The notices first gained public attention last year, when it was revealed the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) had used the power 10 times in one year to block scam financial websites, which resulted in the accidental blocking of 250,000 websites in one go.

The Australian Federal Police also uses these notices to block child abuse websites from the Interpol black list of websites.

A spokesperson for the Attorney-General's Office did not confirm whether the government did intend on using this power, but it is understood to be one option in the Australian Federal Police's arsenal.

The Australian Federal Police continues to use this power, and confirmed to ZDNet that it had sent out Section 313 notices to ISPs since the 2013 federal election, but declined to elaborate on the types of websites that had been asked to be blocked.

"Yes, the AFP has made s313 requests to ISPs in relation to particular telecommunications networks and facilities that have been identified during the course of investigations that are being used in contravention of the laws of the Commonwealth," a spokesperson for the AFP said.

"The AFP is not in a position to disclose the number of requests made nor the reasons for issuing the notices."

From what I have been told by representatives in the telecommunications industry there appears to have been only one notice issued, and it was not related to ISIS or terrorism websites.

But the fact that the AFP wouldn't even confirm the category of websites it was seeking to block highlights the ongoing issue with Section 313 notices. Although the government wants everyone to know it is not embarking on internet filtering as a broad regime, it is ultimately asking ISPs to block websites one by one, with zero public transparency into the entire process.

While the government likely fears that listing the websites it is seeking to block could have a Streisand Effect on the sites, it leaves the government open to accusations that it is operating "filtering by stealth", as Greens Senator Scott Ludlam once said.

And unlike the Interpol "worst of" blocked websites, the other sites that are blocked under Section 313 are not replaced with a notice informing the user why the website is blocked. It just becomes a dead end.

If the public could at least be informed when sites are blocked, and under what category those sites fit into, it might provide a better understanding as to why the websites were blocked in the first place, and prevent incidents like the ASIC accident from occurring in the future.

Topics: Government, Government AU, 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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11 comments
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  • I really don't see how these notices could be used for radicalization sites

    unlike child porn, the websites in question are not technically illegal, there's just a fear it might inspire certain people into committing illegal acts. unless new legislation was passed making websites that might inspire people to fight for a foreign group a crime I don't see how these notices could be used for this.
    theoilman
    • Other laws cover this already.

      Its about time net anonimity was limited purely so the psychotics that harass innocent people can actually be identified and held accountable for criminal actions.
      Noneofyourdamnbusinesss
  • I don't know what the law in Australia is, but...

    ...there is an old common law concept called "incitement" that appears to be applicable here. Those who encourage criminal conduct with their written and spoken words (regardesss of venue) should be prosecuted, but there should be no prior restraint. That's not going to cover foreign websites, but I see them as much less of a problem than live people exhorting their followers to go to war.
    John L. Ries
    • Not the case either

      That's just it... that's not happening either. Although I'm certainly against the thing that's being enticed, no law is being broken, and this sort of censorship is exactly the sort of tyranny that the world has worked so hard to get rid of... or rather "appear" to get rid of.
      AnomalyTea
      • So the question is what to do about it

        Free speech is free speech, unless it amounts to criminal incitement. People have the right to expose themselves to whatever propaganda they choose and are responsible for their own radicalization. But if someone leads chants of "bomb, bomb" or distributes literature urging the same thing (via whatever medium), then he should be arrested and prosecuted. The test should be as to whether or not the speech, or sermon, or pamphlet, or website is promoting criminal activity; not whether it is likely to radicalize the impressionable.
        John L. Ries
        • There are other exeptions to free speech

          Mostly having to do with slander, libel, or fraud (false advertising is a species of the latter), but you get the idea.
          John L. Ries
      • So instead of being terrorised by big bad governments...

        We can be terrorised by an anonymous army of geeks instead. Thats a great idea.
        Noneofyourdamnbusinesss
  • Free speech doesn't apply

    There are zero provisions for 'freedom of speech or expression' for foreign entities - feel free to quote an applicable law that proves me wrong.

    Further, any publication that incites or advances the causes of terrorism is illegal - any and all activities that fall into the government's perception of terrorism or terrorist activities is automatically illegal. So blocking of such sites is perfectly legal under existing legislation.

    Remember, technically websites dedicated to euthanasia are illegal - they don't perform the act, they may not even describe the processes, all they have to do is promote the topic, because it is an illegal practice. If euthanasia websites are illegal, you can bet the farm websites promoting terrorism or any form of illegal activism will be classified and treated similarly.
    TrevorX
    • What a tangled web we spim when we deceive

      Euthanaisa is not illegal. Show me the law that doesn't refer to it as suicide which is what is illegal.

      Australia doesn't have a Bill of Rights and there is no guarantee of universal free speech for anyone in our Constitution, unlike the USA.

      The use of Sec 313 (TELECOMMUNICATIONS ACT 1997) to control the publication of material on the internet without any oversight is dangerous to say the least. That is something our politicians ignore.
      Bob.H-819a5
      • De Jure vs De Facto

        We may not have a legally enshrined right to free speech (de jure) here, but youll never find hordes of people being rounded up and shot because they dont agree with the government (de facto)
        Also, states do have their own bills of rights, none of which concern things that Australians have ALWAYS had a right to. We dont pretend to be afraid of government here so that we can keep guns and shoot any government agent who dares enforce the law on us.
        As Australians we are well aware that we can say what we like, up to a point. If you point at a muslim and yell "Youre a scumbag raghead" youre gonna get your face smacked in, and authorities thanks to this lack of 'free speech' will charge you for being a loud mouthed prick who deserved exactly what he got.
        Noneofyourdamnbusinesss
        • Sadly tho...

          Sites like ZDnet take it upon themselves to censure people they believe have slighted them by banning their email accounts and not allowing them to make any comment on any subject.
          Websites that claim 'free speech zones' are far less inclined to allow free speech than any government that has ever been formed in australia
          Noneofyourdamnbusinesss