Telco industry group warns against expanding website blocking

Communications Alliance warns of expanding use of 'Section 313' of the Telco Act to block online gambling services

Communications Alliance, a group representing Australian telecommunications and Internet service provider businesses, has warned against expanding the scope of a law employed by government agencies to block public access to websites.

The warning is contained in a Comms Alliance submission (PDF) to the Department of Social Service's (DSS) review of the impact of illegal offshore wagering.

The review, which began in September, is examining at how to strengthen enforcement of the Interactive Gambling Act 2001. Submissions closed this month.

Under the act, it is illegal to advertise and provide Australians with access to some forms of online gambling.

In its current iteration the Interactive Gambling Act 2001 gives the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) the power to oversee an ISP industry code intended to restrict access to illegal services.

The applicable code is the Interactive Gambling Industry Code (PDF), which was developed by the Internet Industry Association (with custodianship transferred to the Communications Alliance after the IIA wound up).

There is currently no obligation for an ISP to block its customers' access to an online gambling service.

To comply with the code an ISP has to provide a customer who lodges a complaint with the ability to install a filter to prevent access to overseas-hosted online gambling services; providing that filter could be done through a giving them a link to third-party filtering software, for example (there is no obligation for ISP-level filtering).

In its submission to the DSS inquiry, Comms Alliance argued against any move to mandate that ISPs must block their customers from accessing overseas-based gambling sites.

In particular, the organisation warned against expanding the use of Section 313(3) of the Telecommunications Act 1997.

Section 313(3) has been used by government agencies, including in one particularly notorious case the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), to compel ISPs to block their subscribers from accessing particular websites.

Currently Section 313 obliges telcos to "give officers and authorities of the Commonwealth and of the States and Territories such help as is reasonably necessary" for "enforcing the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties", "assisting the enforcement of the criminal laws in force in a foreign country", "protecting the public revenue", and "safeguarding national security".

In the case of ASIC, the organisation issued a notice that was intended to make ISPs block access to a number of scam websites.

However, the wording of the request meant it had the effect of cutting off access to hundreds of thousands of unrelated sites.

In 2014 the government referred the use of Section 313 to a parliamentary inquiry.

That inquiry rejected calls for limits to be imposed on the use of Section 313 by government agencies.

"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 argued in its submission to the DSS review.

"The blocking of websites is regularly considered by those outside the Industry as a solution to issues associated with illegal or fraudulent activities that take place on the internet," the submission stated.

The telco industry helps block sites such as those on Interpol's 'worst of the worst' list containing child abuse material, the submission notes, in addition to being subject to the use of Section 313.

"The use of blocking to achieve social policy outcomes is problematic," the submission argues.

"Site blocking in general is a relatively blunt tool and has the potential to extend outside original intentions," it states, citing the ASIC example.

"Site blocking requires a request to be made to ISPs to actively block a domain name, and requires personnel with the necessary technological expertise to undertake the task. However, such blocks, even if correctly targeted, only provide a partial solution due to the large volume of ISPs (over 400) in Australia and the complexity of requesting all of them to install a block. 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."

In addition, it would be possible for individuals to evade a block using tools such as VPNs.

An expanded site-blocking regime would also bring with it the question of who would pay for its enforcement.

The telco and ISP industry believes "that there is merit in better-coordinated Government-driven education of consumers on the pitfalls of gambling and the potential dangers involved in using overseas providers," the submission argues.

The government earlier this year legislated another website-blocking scheme aimed at reducing online piracy.

Under that scheme, a copyright holder may seek a Federal Court injunction to have an ISP block its customers' access to a website linked to piracy. The legislation is yet to be used in court (although that may soon change).

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Tags censorshipCommunications Alliancewebsite blockingsection 313online gambling

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