Government agencies would be required to put up "stop pages" alerting the public to websites blocked under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act under proposals put forward by the Department of Communications.
In April 2013, following a bungle by ASIC that resulted in accidentally blocking customer access to 250,000 websites for at least two ISPs — when the agency was just seeking to block websites associated with investment fraud — it was revealed that three commonwealth government agencies had been using Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to compel ISPs to block customer access to websites on their behalf.
Earlier this year, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull launched a parliamentary inquiry into the government's use of the power, following public backlash. In his department's submission to the inquiry, the government said that the use of this power doesn't amount to internet filtering.
"There has been criticism that government agency use of Section 313 to disrupt access to illegal online services constitutes a policy of broad-based internet filtering. This is not the case. Broad-based filters typically block access to all instances of a specific category of services; for example, all webpages containing online gambling or featuring images or descriptions of pornography," the department stated.
"In contrast, the disruption of access to online services under Section 313 to date has been a targeted response to specific instances of illegal services. The types of services that can be targeted are restricted by Section 313(3) of the legislation, and disruption of access is typically only requested where an agency considers there is a strong public or national interest to do so. A decision to disrupt access to a service is specific to that instance."
There is, however, a valid concern in the lack of transparency and oversight of the whole process, the department admitted. It proposed developing "services disruption procedures" that government agencies must follow when seeking to get websites blocked.
The agency would need to get the approval of the agency head or portfolio minister before seeking for a website to be blocked, and then, if there is no security or operation issue, announce the blocking of that site through media releases or a website announcement.
The sites that are blocked should be replaced with a "generic government stop page" similar to that used in blocking the child abuse websites on the Interpol "worst of" list.
The department has suggested that the page would indicate which agency made the request, the reason for the request, a contact for the agency, and information on how to seek a review of the block.
The review could ultimately end up in court, or through a commonwealth or state ombudsman, the department indicated.
The department revealed that there have been 32 requests made, that it knows of, from government agencies between the 2011 and 2013 financial years. The Australian Federal Police (AFP) accounted for 21 of these, mainly to block child abuse websites, and one instance of blocking malware. ASIC's efforts accounted for 10 requests, and a single request came from an agency in the attorney-general's portfolio to block a website "on counter-terrorism grounds".
The department said it is not aware of any state or local governments that have sought to block websites.
In its own submission, the AFP said it had sent out a "number of Section 313 requests" to block peer-to-peer malware designed to steal banking and financial credentials, and the agency indicated that it supports reporting the blocking of sites on an annual basis, provided the specific details are left out.
"Releasing specific details publicly as to the nature of each individual request and to which ISP each request was made may have a substantial adverse effect on the proper and efficient operations of the AFP, and may be contrary to the public interest," the AFP argued.