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"Accidental" Blocking of Australian Websites Raises Concerns About Government Censorship

BY Jessica McKenzie | Wednesday, May 22 2013

Sydney Opera House (Anthony Winning)

An Australian government agency admitted last week to unintentionally blocking more than 1,200 perfectly legal websites in the process of shutting down one allegedly fraudulent site. In their defense, they pointed out that they have successfully blocked a number of websites in the past nine months without causing collateral digital damage. This assertion came as no consolation to Australian netizens concerned about Internet censorship, especially opaque and hazily legal censorship.

From April 4 to April 12, Melbourne Free University and approximately 1,200 other websites were blocked by some, but not all, Australian Internet service providers (ISPs). At the time, the ISPs said that it was a government block, but would give no further details. Last week, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) took responsibility, revealing that it had “blocked “numerous” websites over the past nine months which it suspected contained illegal material.”

The Australian federal government now requires Australia's ISPs to block websites suspected of illegal activity on behalf of government. This is all being ushered in under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, which asks ISPs to give “help as is reasonably necessary” to enforce laws and safeguard national security. In 2011 the law was first implemented to block the “worst of the worst” child pornography sites. Even then, blogger Renai LeMay was concerned about “scope creep”.

Her thoroughly reported articles linked to above end with her own opinion/analysis, in which she points back to her longstanding skepticism and mistrust of Section 313, and suggests possible misappropriations of the law in the future:

It is very easy to foresee that other Federal Government agencies would like to follow the example set by ASIC and quietly use Section 313 notices to block other sites on the borderlines of legality. The Department of Health and Aging may like to block pro-euthanasia sites, for example, or sites promoting illegal drug use. The Australian Taxation Office may like to block sites promoting methods of tax evasion. The Department of Defence [sic] may like to block sites which expose details of Australian military misconduct. And so on. The list is endless, and I am sure that there are at least a a couple of agencies closely examining what ASIC has done here, with a view to potentially doing the same in their own portfolios in future.

Peter Black, a law lecturer at Queensland University of Technology, is also suspicious of ASIC's activity:

It does seem as though since the government formally abandoned their policy of mandatory ISP-level internet filtering, they do seem to be moving towards using Section 313 to effectively introduce some form of filter through the back door. . . The big problem from going down this particular path is that we're not seeing proper parliamentary or public scrutiny about this process. It certainly has the potential for it to be mandatory web filtering but by another name. The difficulty is we don't know how widespread this practice is.

Electronic Frontiers Australia also condemned ASIC's actions. The real issue for them, and for LeMay and Black, is the sheer lack of transparency and honesty from the government. Is it so crazy to want to know when and why Internet censorship occurs, and to demand government agencies take appropriate steps to ensure legality?

Personal Democracy Media is grateful to the Omidyar Network for its generous support of techPresident's WeGov section.