How the Australian government can block sites without 'filtering'

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.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

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.

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