Turnbull establishes inquiry into government website blocking

Australian Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has established an inquiry into the use of the controversial Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act that allows government agencies to have content removed from the internet.
Written by Chris Duckett, Contributor

The terms of reference for the inquiry will be to examine which government agencies may make requests, what level of authority agencies should have to issue Section 313 notices, the "characteristics" of sites that are subjected to such notices, and looking at the "appropriate" amount of transparency and accountability for using Section 313.

As it currently stands, Australian government agencies are able to use Section 313 notices, without the need to notify a central tally or authority, to request telcommunication companies to block websites believed to be in contravention of Australian law.

Public attention was given to the powers of Section 313 only when it was revealed that 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. Section 313 is also known to be used by the Australian Federal Police (AFP) and one other national security agency that reports into the Attorney General's department.

Last week, the AFP confirmed to ZDNet that it had used Section 313 since the 2013 election, but would not provide the number of notices that it had sent to ISPs in the meantime.

"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."

Liberal MP, Jane Prentice, chair of the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications that will conduct the investigation, said the inquiry will allow a gauging of expectations about what sort of services should be subjected to Section 313.

"The inquiry is an important step towards providing clarity about the use of the section to disrupt illegal online services," she said.

Submissions to the inquiry are open until Friday August 22, with the committee due to provide its final report by July 1, 2015.

The announcement of the inquiry comes as the Australian parliament considers legislation to significantly expand the powers of ASIO to conduct electronic surveillance and access the computers of third parties in their activities.

Attorney General George Brandis has downplayed fears of enhanced powers for intelligence agencies leading to imprisoning of whistleblowers and journalists, and said that the new powers would only be used in "very limited circumstances" and only when necessary to deal with a national security threat.

"People need to understand that ASIO and the national security agencies operate under a very, very comprehensive regime of safeguards and scrutiny and oversight — and that's not going to change," he said.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said that the Greens would be looking to have a Senate inquiry into the new legislation.

"This government is in enough trouble without picking a fight with the internet," he said.

In December it was revealed that the then-new government was sitting on a draft discussion paper prepared for the former Labor government. An August version of the paper proposed that in cases where it would not jeopardise ongoing investigations or national security, agencies should announce to the public when sites are blocked, and there should be a block page put in place when a user attempts to access the page. This would replicate the experience to the blocking of sites on the Interpol internet filter of the so-called worst-of child abuse material sites that have been blocked, but in not currently done for other illegal sites.

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