news The Federal Attorney-General’s Department has denied any involvement in a controversial event in April which saw some 1,200 websites wrongfully blocked by several of Australia’s major Internet service providers, claiming that neither it nor the Australian Federal Police were involved, despite ISPs blaming the Government for the move.
On April 12, Melbourne publication the Melbourne Times Weekly reported that more than 1,200 websites, including one belonging to independent learning organisation Melbourne Free University, might have been blocked by “the Australian Government”. At the time, Melbourne Free University was reportedly told by its ISP, Exetel, that the IP address hosting its website had been blocked by Australian authorities. The block lasted from April 4 until April 12.
Subsequently, the US-based Electronic Frontier Foundation issued a media release linking the issue to the Labor Federal Government’s various Internet filtering initiatives, especially the voluntary filtering scheme currently implemented by a number of major ISPs including Telstra, Optus and Vodafone.
In November last year, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy formally dumped the Government’s highly controversial mandatory Internet filtering scheme, instead throwing his support behind a much more limited scheme which sees Australian ISPs voluntarily implementing a much more limited filter which Telstra, Optus and one or two other ISPs had already implemented. Vodafone has also implemented the filter, and the process is also believed to be under way at other ISPs such as iiNet.
The ‘voluntary’ filter only blocks a set of sites which international policing agency Interpol has verified contain “worst of the worst” child pornography — not the wider Refused Classification category of content which Conroy’s original filter had dealt with. The instrument through which the ISPs are blocking the Interpol list of sites is Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act. Under the Act, the Australian Federal Police is allowed to issue notices to telcos asking for reasonable assistance in upholding the law. It is believed the AFP has issued such notices to Telstra and Optus to ask them to filter the Interpol blacklist of sites.
Speculation in April centred around the idea that the Australian Federal Police had wrongfully added the web hosting address for Melbourne Free University to its filter list, which had then been distributed to the ISPs participating in the program. Commenters noted that users of ISPs which had implemented the filter — such as Telstra, Optus and Vodafone — were unable to access the host for Melbourne Free University, while users at other ISPs, which have not implemented the voluntary filter, such as TPG, were able to freely access the site as per normal.
However, in a statement issued late yesterday, the Attorney-General’s Department denied any involvement in the false positive event, on its own part or that of the AFP.
“The Attorney-General’s Department was made aware of the incident to which you refer,” the department said in a statement. “As the Attorney-General’s Department, and its portfolio agencies, including the Australian Federal Police, were not involved, and no powers under legislation administered by the Attorney-General were utilised, we are not in a position to provide further comment.”
The Australian Communications and Media Authority, which has powers to enforce the takedown of content hosted in Australia (but not outside of Australia), also denied it was involved, repeating the statement it issued in April noting that it had not blocked the site where Melbourne Free University was hosted and that it was not investigating any prohibited content.
Both agencies yesterday declined to comment further on the issue when questioned by Delimiter. Delimiter has also requested comment by the office of Communications Minister Stephen Conroy, Conroy’s Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy, telcos including Telstra, Optus, iiNet and Exetel, and the Australian Federal Police. Formal responses have not yet been received by any of these organisations.
In addition, Delimiter has filed a wide-ranging Freedom of Information request with the Australian Federal Police with the aim of determining whether the block was caused by a Section 313 notice issued by the agency. The FOI request seeks: The complete text of all notices issued by the AFP under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to any Australian ISP in calendar year 2013; Any responses sent by ISPs to the AFP in response to the issuing of these notices, and any communication from the AFP to the ISPs in response to these notices, in calendar year 2013.
In addition, Delimiter is also seeking the full text of any email communication between the AFP and the Attorney-General’s Department or between the AFP and the office of the Federal Attorney-General which took place on or since 1 April 2013 that mentions an Internet block placed on a number of websites including Melbourne Free University.
The news comes as Greens Communications Spokesperson, Senator Scott Ludlam, has placed increasing pressure on the Federal Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus, to reveal any involvement his office or department had in the false positive block. In mid-April Ludlam formally asked Dreyfus the following questions on notice: “With reference to the block placed on the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the Melbourne Free University for undisclosed reasons from Thursday, 4 April 2013 to Friday, 12 April 2013:”
- Under what agreement or arrangement between law enforcement agencies and internet service providers (ISPs) was the block executed.
- What was the nature of the content hosted on the Melbourne Free University server that triggered the block.
- Was the block placed by government order under section 313 of the Telecommunications Act 1997, and if not, under what authority was it made.
- Why was the block lifted, and when was it lifted.
- Was the block executed by government order in relation to implementation of the European Cybercrime Convention, and if so, did the block request originate from a foreign law enforcement agency.
- Did the block on one IP address cause negative impacts on 1,200 other websites.
- What explanation was provided and what redress is available to the operators of the 1,199 sites that were not violating the law.
- What notification processes are in place to ensure that organisations and businesses suffering indefinite collateral damage from such mistakes do not waste network research and other resources in diagnosing and seeking to rectify the problem.
On 29 April the Government transferred the questions on notice to the Minister representing the Treasurer, without any explanation.
Update: The AFP has additionally issued the following statement with respect to the incident: “The AFP is aware of the incident to which you refer, however the AFP does not have any involvement in the matter.”
Given the denials by the Attorney-General’s Department and the ACMA, I am even more mystified as to what happened in early April that caused Melbourne Free University and some 1,200 other sites to be blocked by Australia’s major ISPs, and the sense I am getting behind the scenes from some of the players involved is that they are also mystified. It seems that this whole thing didn’t go through the normal processes.
I would like at this point to inform the Government and associated parties that I’m not going to let go of this one. I will pursue this issue until the public finds out what happened here. The Australian Government does not currently really have the power to arbitrarily block whole categories of websites from the Internet without some form of extreme justification (such as those sites hosting ‘worst of the worst’ child pornography as defined by Interpol), and I am pretty sure that Melbourne Free University was not doing that. Something has gone wrong here, and I will not rest until someone lets the Australian public know precisely what happened. Mark my words: The truth here will come out.