Users should know what websites are blocked: Comms Department

Australians should be informed that the website they're trying to reach has been blocked by the government, according to talking points from the Department of Communications.

Stop pages indicating to users that a website has been blocked from access in Australia by an Australian government agency is one measure advocated by the Department of Communications to increase transparency and accountability over the government's controversial internet filtering powers.

Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act provides powers for agencies to ask ISPs to block websites believed to be in breach of Australian law.

The power only gained public attention after it was revealed that the  Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) had accidentally blocked 250,000 websites  in April 2013 when seeking to block websites associated with investment fraud, including the website of Melbourne Free University.

At the time, it was suggested that three government agencies including ASIC, the Australian Federal Police, and one other national security agency had used the power, but there was no central oversight into the use of the power across the entire government.

The Department of Communications appears to be advocating for much greater transparency of the government use of the power according to talking points (PDF) from the Department of Communications in May 2013, published under Freedom of Information.

The department has proposed that, similar to the Interpol 'worst of' child abuse websites websites blocked by the Australian Federal Police, any website blocked under Section 313 should have a 'stop page' informing the user why the website was blocked.

"It would appear reasonable to consider measures such as 'stop-pages' to alert people that the pages they are trying to access have been blocked and a point of contact for people to find out more information," the document states.

The talking points outline that the type of content that can be blocked will vary, and must be assessed on a "case-by-case basis" depending on the material and the agency that is blocking it.

The department also indicated that the power couldn't be used to block websites with copyright-infringing material on it.

"Civil matters, such as non-criminal copyright matters, would not be sufficient to trigger the use of section 313."

It is believed that this ban would not affect government proposals to block websites — such as The Pirate Bay — Australians access to download infringing TV shows and films, because the scheme envisaged in the government's recently-released discussion paper would require film studios to obtain a court injunction that would compel ISPs to block a website, rather than seeking the government to use section 313 powers.

Broadly, the department defended the use of the power's extension to all government agencies, and its broad range of websites that can be blocked.

"The existing legislation does not provide enforcement agencies with unfettered power to have online content blocked. ISPs are able to discuss any concerns they have regarding a section 313 request with the requesting agency," the talking points paper stated.

"Section 313 is intended to provide flexibility to allow agencies to work with carriers and carriage service providers when enforcing the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties, protecting public revenue, or safeguarding national security.

"However, strengthening accountability and transparency around section 313 when it is used for online blocking would be appropriate."

The document was created by the department under the former Labor government. The documents reveal that a draft discussion paper prepared by the former government but never released was planned to be re-drafted in December 2013 by the new Coalition government. The department's cyber policy group in March 2014 gave Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull three options to advance the issue in March this year, including going to public consultation, or referring the issue to a parliamentary committee.

Turnbull last month launched a parliamentary inquiry into government use of the power, headed up by Liberal MP Jane Prentice on the House Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications.