Australian govt departments want to keep power to censor websites

Three Australian government agencies that have used the Telecommunications Act to force ISPs to block sites have indicated to the government that they intend to use that power again.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Australian Federal Police (AFP), the Australian Securities Investment Commission (ASIC), and one unnamed agency have indicated to the government that they would likely seek to keep using powers in the Telecommunications Act to force ISPs to block websites.

In April 2013, following a bungle by ASIC that resulted in accidentally blocking customer access to 250,000 websites for at least two ISPs — when the agency was just seeking to block websites associated with investment fraud — it was 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.

Following public backlash, and amid cries of censorship and criticism over the lack of transparency over the power, the then-Labor government promised to review the power, and improve the oversight and transparency of the process.

At the time, despite the controversy, it seems that internally, agencies had indicated to the government that they intended to continue using the power. A briefing document from a meeting convened by the Department of Communications in May 2013, and published online yesterday under Freedom of Information revealed that the three agencies the department had discovered to be using section 313 to block websites "indicated their intention to use Section 313(3) in a similar way in the future".

The heavily redacted briefing document showed that the AFP had used the power 21 times between June 2011 and February 2013 to request ISPs to block websites listed on the Interpol "worst of" child abuse websites, and would continue to do so in the future.

The document also stated that the AFP "may" have also used the power to "combat some spam and phishing sites". AFP deputy commissioner Michael Phelan said last year that this is not an efficient method of dealing with malware sites.

ASIC was also listed as intending to use the power again.

The name of the third agency, and the sites it had sought to block, were redacted completely from the documents. The department blocked the release of this information on the grounds that it may disclose methods of preventing, detecting, or investigating breaches or evasions of the law.

Previous attempts to out the name of the third agency have failed. It is believed to fall under the Attorney-General's portfolio, which includes national security agencies such as the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation (ASIO). Greens Senator Scott Ludlam asked the department last year to provide the name of the agency, but was told that it was a "national security matter" that could not be commented on.

The former Labor government was preparing to launch a public inquiry into the controversial use of the Section 313 power prior to the federal election in September 2013, but it has stalled since the election of the Coalition government, with the Department of Communications telling ZDNet in December that it was still in consultation with government agencies on the use of the power.

Attorney-General George Brandis indicated last month that he is considering giving the power to the Federal Court to give injunctions to ISPs to force the companies to block copyright-infringing websites such as The Pirate Bay.

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