by Rebecca Merrett

Internet user group to help govt fix flawed website blocking laws

Jun 01, 20153 mins

The Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications today released a report to address the problem of government agencies blocking websites without being properly guided.

In the report titled Balancing Freedom and Protection, which looks at Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, the committee said agencies are required to have a level of ‘technical expertise’ before asking ISPs to block a website that breaches law.

This follows on from an incident in 2013 when the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) accidentally blocked 250,000 websites due to a lack of understanding between an IP address and website address.

Internet Australia welcomed the report saying it will work with the government to fix the “flaws” in the current legislation.

“We look forward to assisting the government in framing the ‘whole of government’ guidelines, as proposed by the committee,” said Internet Australia CEO, Laurie Patton.

“We are currently providing technical advice and assistance to the Attorney General’s department regarding the implementation of the Data Retention Act. We are ready to assist the Communications department with the Section 313 guidelines.”

There are eight points set out in the whole of government guidelines in the report. These include:

  • Agencies developing their own internal policies for requesting a website block
  • Agencies seeking clearance from their head of agency or minister before blocking a website
  • Agencies ensuring that the website blocked is limited to specific material that draws a specified penalty – for example, a maximum prison term of at least two years
  • Agencies consulting across government and ISPs to ensure blocking a website is effective, responsible and appropriate
  • Agencies using stop pages explaining why a page was blocked
  • Agencies publicly announcing when they request a website to be blocked while not jeopardising ongoing investigations or other law enforcement or national security concerns
  • Agencies having an internal review process potentially lift a block where there is an appeal against the block
  • Agencies reporting blocking activity to the ACMA, otherwise to the appropriate Parliamentary committee.
  • Patton also said he wants to hold out on Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 for a year to see how the Copyright Notice Scheme Code and more online platforms for legal content help with the issue of illegal downloads. An independent study of the real extent of video piracy also needs to be undertaken, he said.

    “We should wait a year to see what impact these changes have on the level of unauthorised downloading before proceeding with problematic legislation that has the potential to disrupt the Internet,” he said.

    Meanwhile, Greens Senator Scott Ludlam said the level of expertise agencies will need to block websites is “basic” and believes the government hasn’t paid enough attention to the implications of this section of the Act.

    “An unregulated site blocking regime just got the nod from a committee that appears to have slept through much of the evidence that was put to it,” he said.

    “It is the parliamentary equivalent of a vacant stare. The major parties have failed internet users, again.

    He also pointed out that the report comes at a time when a debate will take place soon in the Senate on the proposal of a law to let foreign copyright-holders also block websites from Australians under a different process.