Australian agencies should retain site-blocking powers: Committee

Despite one agency blocking access to over 1,000 sites by mistake, an Australian parliamentary committee has recommended that government agencies should continue to have the power to compel ISPs to block certain websites.

Government agencies should be able to continue to compel internet service providers (ISPs) to block websites, but should know what they're doing before requesting sites to be blocked, a parliamentary committee has recommended.

The power to compel ISPs to block websites contained in Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act only gained public attention after it was revealed that ASIC had accidentally blocked 250,000 websites in April 2013 when seeking to block websites associated with investment fraud, including the website of Melbourne Free University.

Unlike child abuse websites blocked by the Australian Federal Police (AFP), websites that were being blocked by ASIC did not inform people who attempted to reach those pages of why the sites were blocked.

Thus far, the blocking power has only been used by ASIC, the AFP, and an as-yet-unnamed national security agency . Since April 2013, it is believed that the AFP is the only organisation that would continue using the power.

Following criticism of the lack of transparency and central oversight of this power, a year later, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull established a parliamentary inquiry into the use of Section 313.

In the committee's ominously titled "Balancing Freedom and Protection" report tabled in the House of Representatives on Monday, the committee chair Jane Prentice recommended that despite ASIC's bungling of the power, there was an "indisputable need" for agencies to continue to have the power.

"The committee believes there is strong evidence of the need for s313, whether constituted in its current form or in a modified form. Section 313 allows government agencies to interdict illegal activity online by disrupting websites in circumstances where no other means of intervention may be available," the committee stated.

But the committee found that ASIC's stuff up, due to not knowing how IP addresses work, showed there was a problem in the way s313 was being used.

The committee did not recommend restricting which agencies could use this power, but said that there should be more transparency and accountability over the use of the power.

The committee was not convinced that because people could circumvent blocks that it would be an unnecessary power.

"The fact that particular activities or content may have to be found and blocked repeatedly does not negate the necessity of trying," the committee stated.

The sites that are blocked should have a stop page, to inform the public that the site is blocked, and there should be review and appeal processes.

There should also be better technical competence within agencies using the power, and the committee also recommended that there should be whole-of-government guidelines developed by the Department of Communications for using s313 to block websites.

A final report by the committee is due to be tabled by July 1, 2015.

It comes as Attorney-General George Brandis has said the government will be pushing to pass legislation in June forcing ISPs to block alleged copyright infringing websites under court order.

Brandis has also said that the government is considering an entire overhaul of the Copyright Act, which will determine what does and doesn't constitute an infringement of copyright in Australia.

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