news The Federal Government is considering extending its covert Internet filtering scheme to block offshore gambling websites, in a ‘scope creep’ move that has the telecommunications industry up in arms about the dangers of secretive Internet censorship.
Government departments and agencies currently have the power to request that telcos such as Telstra, Optus, Vodafone and TPG take steps to block their customers from accessing websites based overseas. The use of the power has only come about in the past several years, since the Australian Federal Police re-interpreted Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to allow it to request telcos block a list of child abuse sites.
Since that time, the use of the power has become widespread within Government departments. There is currently no public transparency mechanism to determine which websites have been blocked using the power, and no formal mechanism for requesting that websites be unblocked.
In September, the Department of Social Services published a reference paper (PDF), inviting submission on how illegal offshore wagering services could be cracked down on.
In the terms of reference paper, the Department openly canvassed using “technological solutions” to tackle the issue.
“A number of countries have developed actions to address issues of unauthorised wagering providers including the implementation of greater enforcement measures within their financial and telecommunication legislation,” the paper states.
A review of the issue being carried out by the department is set to examine, among other issues, “what other technological and legislative options are available to mitigate the costs of illegal offshore wagering”.
“We urge careful consideration of any proposal to extend the use of Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to require ISPs to block offshore wagering websites, as such use has the potential to capture many other entities, including schools, universities, libraries and cloud-based services in ways that may hamper their legitimate activities and disadvantage consumers,” the Communications Alliance wrote in its submission.
The Communications Alliance noted that the use of site blocking to achieve social policy outcomes was “problematic” for many reasons, starting with the fact of inadvertent blocking of innocent sites as seen in the ASIC case, to the fact that site blocking is easily overcome by the use of VPN services, and the difficulty of making site blocking requests to the 400-odd ISPs currently operating in the Australian telecommunications landscape.
Furthermore, not all ISPs have thus far consented to participate in site blocking, with several major ISPs avoiding cooperating with the Government on the issue.
“If not all ISPs are part of the arrangement, there is the potential for wagerers to pick and choose their ISP so as to avoid any site blocking,” the Communications Alliance wrote.
I would be very surprised if use of the covert Section 313 website blocking power had not become very widespread indeed within the Federal Government over the past several years. I will shortly start seeking to extract further information from the Government as to what websites it is blocking, and what transparency and accountability mechanisms it has placed around the use of this power.
Despite the death of Labor’s mandatory Internet filter scheme, it remains the fact that Australia does have an active Internet filtering scheme — in fact it has several. It will be interesting to find out precisely what it is being used for.