​Industry calls for website-blocking appeal process

Representatives of Australia's telecommunications industry have called for an appeals process providing website owners with some measure of recourse if their sites are blocked under Australian law.

The laws allowing Australian government agencies to block websites should include an appeal process for owners of websites that may be inadvertently blocked in the scheme, the parliamentary committee reviewing the legislation has heard.

During a public hearing last week, Communications Alliance director program management Christiane Gillespie-Jones told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications that such an appeals process would provide website owners with a channel of recourse that is currently not available.

"Importantly, it should ... include a review mechanism where people who believe that the website has been blocked inadvertently, and they are the owner of the website, can appeal against that block," Gillespie-Jones told the committee.

She also argued that other potential mechanisms aimed at making the website-blocking process more transparent, such as so-called "stop pages" providing information as to why a site has been blocked, should be written into the legislation.

"We think that it is better public policy to create the certainty through the primary law, and that that would contribute greatly to a more effective and more transparent use of the law in that specific context of disrupting illegal online behaviour," she said.

Likewise, the Internet Society of Australia's director Holly Raiche argued that an appeal process would offer somebody who has been impacted by an agency's blocking request a place to go for recourse, other than via litigation through a court process.

"The difficulty with the court, particularly for small businesses or individuals, is that access is a very costly and time-consuming process. So there should be a way for somebody to seek redress," she said.

The parliamentary inquiry examining Section 313(3) of the Telecommunications Act 1997, which allows government agencies to disrupt the operation of illegal online services, was established in July last year by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull.

It was prompted by revelations in June 2013 that the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) had inadvertently caused the block of more than 1,200 websites when it sought the block of websites associated with a cold calling investment scam.

It was subsequently revealed that three agencies across the government had been using this power to compel ISPs to block customer access to websites on their behalf with no central oversight.

On March 4, the committee was told by representatives from the Internet Society of Australia (ISOC-AU) and the Australian Privacy Foundation that the scheme also requires independent oversight if it is to be safe from abuse.

"We would like to see a form of independent authorisation for actions involving the disruption of online services such as the blocking of websites," said ISOC-AU non-executive director Jon Lawrence at the time.