news The global Electronic Frontiers Foundation has harshly criticised the Federal Government for allowing departments and agencies to unilaterally block websites suspected of containing illegal content, saying that it “beggars belief” that such a system could be in place after the previous mandatory filter policy was defeated.
Last night the Federal Government confirmed its financial regulator had started requiring Australian Internet service providers to block websites suspected of providing fraudulent financial opportunities, in a move which appears to also open the door for other government agencies to unilaterally block sites they deem questionable in their own portfolios.
The move is based on the use of Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, which allows government agencies to ask ISPs for reasonable assistance in upholding the law, a mechanism which is also being used for the Government’s limited Interpol-based filter to block child abuse material. However, there is no public oversight of the process, no appeals mechanism, and no transparency to the public or interaction with the formal justice system. A move by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission in April to block several sites suspected of providing fraudulent investment information has already resulted in the inadvertent blockage of some 1,200 other innocent sites.
Danny O’Brien, who in February was appointed to lead the international operations of global digital rights advocacy group the Electronic Frontier Foundation, has been investigating the ASIC block since it occurred in April.
“The idea that the Australian authorities, who had just been through a bruising public debate of mandatory Internet blacklists and lost, would attempt to smuggle a new set of blacklists behind the scenes, beggars belief,” O’Brien said in an email this morning. “I honestly assumed through much of our investigation that it would turn out to be a simple mistake. Now I want to know who else in the Australian government has been shutting off Internet sites without our knowledge.”
O’Brien said he was particularly disappointed with telco AAPT, which assented to ASIC’s request to block the suspected fraud sites. The EFF executive pointed out that the telco could have challenged ASIC’s unprecedented order legally or at least consulted with other ISPs regarding the issue. “Instead they clammed up, and played along. We heard reports while we investigating that the site was also unavailable in New Zealand. Can AAPT assure their New Zealand customers that their Internet isn’t filtered to Australlian specifications?” O’Brien said.
According to O’Brien, the best thing that right now that AAPT — and indeed, any Australian ISP — could do would be to publish their own transparency report, “as companies like Google, Microsoft, Twitter, and ISPs like Sonic.net and Leaseweb, have done”. “That way we could at least track the rise of these requests, and understand how many are being served on Aussie ISPs, and how many they challenge,” he said.
“It doesn’t take much to realise that a single blackholed IP is going to lead to more than one server taken offline. Melbourne Free University was both unlucky enough to share their IP, and lucky enough to be determined enough to ask questions and demand answers. How many other thousands of websites are silenced by 313 orders that have no minimisation requirements, and no pushback from ISPs.”
“BGP blackholing is such a blunt weapon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen it done for censorship purposes, even in authoritarian states. What you have to understand is that if AAPT blocks this site, so does all of AAPT’s downstream customers. They’re making a secret decision to censor, without even telling their own customers that’s what they’re doing.”
O’Brien’s comments and investigation represent only the latest time that the various Internet censorship regimes promulgated by the current Labor Federal Government have attracted global attention and condemnation.
For example, the EFF heavily criticised Australian ISPs in June 2011, due to their continued support for the current limited version of the Government’s mandatory ISP filtering scheme, which is seeing telcos such as Telstra, Optus and Vodafone filtering a “worst of the worst” list of child pornography sites supplied by international policing agency Interpol.
in an article posted at the time, the EFF strongly objected to the voluntary filter, noting that the ISPs’ move came after “numerous failed attempts” to set up what the EFF described as “a centralised filtering plan”. The problems with the stop-gap plan, EFF director for international freedom of expression Jillian C. York wrote, were numerous — ranging from issues such as false positives and a lack of transparency and effectiveness.
In June 2009 Communications Minister Stephen Conroy was named “Internet villain of the year” at the 11th annual Internet industry awards in the UK, for “individuals or organisations that have upset the Internet industry and hampered its development – those whom the industry loves to hate.” The move was in response to Labor’s promulgation of its then-comprehensive mandatory Internet filter plans.