PN Member Scott Ludlam Expresses Concerns About Web Censorship by Australian Government

Greens senator Scott Ludlam says the federal government has revived internet censorship concerns with revelations its agencies are using legislative powers to block Australian users from accessing suspect websites more widely than first thought.

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission confirmed on Thursday it had asked internet service providers (ISPs), including Telstra, to block access to two websites believed to be part of a share trading scam in late March, after a four-year investigation.

In the process, up to 1200 legitimate websites that used the same internet protocol address were also blocked. The move is akin to blocking mail delivery to every home in an entire postcode when targeting one home.

It is believed to be one of the first times a government department apart from the Australian Federal Police has used powers under the Telecommunications Act to prevent users from accessing specific websites.

The powers require ISPs to do what is “reasonably necessary” to prevent users from breaking the law using communications networks.

A dangerous development

ASIC said it had begun sending notices to ISPs requesting blocked access to websites over the past nine months as part of its law enforcement capabilities.

“It is a remarkably dangerous development,” Senator Ludlam told The ­Australian Financial Review.

“It’s extraordinarily difficult to find who has issued these notices and on behalf of whom, for what categories of content, or what you do if you find yourself on a block list. We’ve got a very serious problem and it’s not at all clear whether the government knows what it’s actually doing,” he said.

Communications Minister Stephen Conroy dumped long-held and controversial plans last year for a mandatory internet filter, which would have blocked access to a list of websites that included child pornography, terrorism and other illegal material. The filter proposal was replaced by a restricted scheme of websites containing child abuse material, based on a list maintained by Interpol.

The AFP used the telecommunications powers to direct service providers to block access.

Budget documents released on Tuesday revealed the filter’s dumping would save the government $4.5 million.

‘A mandatory net filtering’

But Senator Ludlam said revelations that ASIC had used the same federal powers, available since 1997, to request similar removals amounted to “mandatory net filtering against no list at all”.

“What is to stop this being used for a whole range of things? “

“These are legally enforceable notices that are being dropped on ISPs,” he said. “There is no scope to creep, what even is the scope?

The chief regulatory officer for big ISP iiNet, Steve Dalby, said while the AFP-led scheme to take down child abuse material was transparent, no such oversight was apparent in other government agencies using the notices.

“If other agencies go through a similar sort of process, with similar rigour, and are prepared to share that process with others, and there are things like appeal processes behind it all, then there is a position to convince people to take the steps they’re requesting.”An ASIC spokesman said the agency was “reviewing its processes used to disrupt access to fraudulent web sites to ensure that inadvertent impact is not caused to any innocent web site”.

“I don’t know that it occurred with ASIC, it suspiciously seems like it may not have, given there was no splash page, there was no explanation of what to do if your web site got blocked and if you believed it was unfair blocking.”

Government responsibility

Mr Dalby said iiNet had previously complied with notices sent by the AFP to take down web sites that contained illegal material such as terrorism information.

“We don’t want to be making any decisions of where we should comply with an instruction from a law enforcement agency; it should be them making that call,” he said.

“They have an enforcement role to perform but they also have an obligation to do it in such a way that it complies with the normal tests of evidence and onus of proof.”

ASIC has previously come under the spotlight in September last year after it requested greater powers to intercept telephone calls and internet use of stock brokers and fund managers as part of a parliamentary inquiry into expanded national security laws.

The body’s commissioner, Greg Tanzer, claimed at the time that ASIC was “operating with one hand tied behind its back”.


Originally published on Financial Review.

Photo by congresscheck.

Read stories from: