'Voluntary' oversight for Australian agencies blocking sites

Australian government agencies are under no obligation to inform the Department of Communications when they ask ISPs to block websites, despite controversy over the practice.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Australian government agencies can 'voluntarily' inform the Communications Department each time they ask ISPs to block websites under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, but none have done so since September last year, the department has told ZDNet.

Over a year since it was first revealed that government agencies had been using a power in the Telecommunications Act to ask ISPs to block websites believed to be in breach of Australian law, the government still has yet to decide how to improve accountability over the practice.

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 oversight into the power across the entire government.

Given the controversy, in June last year, then-Communications Minister Stephen Conroy said he had directed his department to begin looking into how to improve the transparency and regulation of agencies that have been using the power, and the department began working on a discussion paper into the use of the powers, which never saw the light of day prior to the September election that saw the Coalition opposition elected into government.

In December, the Communications Department told ZDNet that it was "consulting with agencies" on the use of Section 313 to block websites.

Seven months later, however, and the government has yet to reach a decision on how to provide greater transparency into Section 313 powers. The Department of Communications also confirmed it still has no mandatory oversight over agencies asking ISPs to block websites.

"The decision to request that online content be blocked under s313 is at the discretion of individual agencies. Should such a notice be issued, the agency concerned may voluntarily inform the department that it has done so," a spokesperson for the Department of Communications told ZDNet.

"We have received no such notification in the timeframe specified. The government is currently considering how to proceed on this issue and cannot comment further on the form that the response might take at this time."

The Australian Federal Police is the only agency that has admitted to using the power since the election, but would not categorise the content that it had sought to block. The power has historically been used by the AFP to block child abuse websites on the Interpol 'worst of' blacklist, but the AFP could potentially also use the power as one way to clamp down on websites promoting terrorism.

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