The law and technology behind Australia's internet filtering

Australia's newly-announced internet "filtering" plan relies on an unprecedented interpretation of the law and will do little to prevent the spread of child abuse material.
Written by Stilgherrian , Contributor

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On this week's Patch Monday podcast, we hear how internet service providers (ISPs) are being given notices under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 asking them to comply with requests from the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and implement the Interpol "worst-of" blacklist.

But until now, Section 313 had always been used for specific crimes happening at the time of the request.

"Now all of a sudden, Section 313 means that if there is a hypothetical crime somewhere that fits this particular pattern that [Communications Minister] Conroy seems to care about, then hypothetically, we'll do something about it," said Mark Newton, a network engineer with an extensive background in ISPs.

"It's almost like science fiction about pre-crime. We're in the 'Minority Report' land."

David Vaile, director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales, agreed. The original interpretation makes sense, he said, but under the new interpretation, the scope of any request to ISPs seem to be at the discretion of the AFP or the minister.

"What's interesting here is that it's cast, as in many Commonwealth laws, in a really broad way that gives enforcing regulators or enforcing authorities — in this case, it sounds like the federal police — potentially very broad scope," Vaile said.

"If it's an open-ended discretion based very much on a non-reviewable interpretation, then it's much harder to be comfortable that, really, it is just what it seems."

Newton thinks that because the Interpol blacklist includes only entire domains, ISPs will be able to implement blocking quickly and cheaply by reconfiguring their domain name system (DNS) servers, rather than requiring new equipment.

But a so-called "poisoned" DNS is easy to bypass, as demonstrated when six million Italians switched to Google's DNS servers after the Italian government tried to block access to unlicensed gambling sites.

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Running time 55 minutes, 49 seconds

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