Greens Senator Scott Ludlam has said it is “remarkable” that Senator Stephen Conroy’s department is looking into greater transparency over the use of section 313 of the Telecommunications Act.
“So months and months after this practice [was] started by the AFP and by ASIC and we don’t know who else, only once the issue gets into the media and people start arcing up about it does the minister ask his department what they think about transparency,” Ludlum said.
Conroy told Computerworld Australia he has asked his department for suggestions on how to improve transparency around the use of section 313 to block websites.
This follows the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) recently ordering an IP-based block of alleged scam websites that prevented some Australians from accessing 1200 unrelated sites.
The communications minister said transparency measures could include a notice alerting people that a page has been blocked, similar to alerts for sites on Interpol's 'worst of the worst' child exploitation sites.
“I’ve got real concerns about scope creep [with section 313], if you would even call it that, because there’s not even any scope any more – that other agencies would be using this to block an arbitrary selection of content that they believe is illegal on any given day,” Ludlam said.
Ludlam said that he was pleased that the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy was examining increased transparency for section 313 blocks, but he is still critical of the way the Telecommunications Act has been used.
The senator said he did not blame Conroy for ASIC's actions, but at the end of the day, “this is the Internet filter”.
“What we’re looking at now becomes a completely different proposition because there is no list – there’s no list at all,” Ludlam said.
“ASIC just decided one day to use a Section 313 notice to knock out a site [and] accidentally over-blocked by a factor of 1200.”
“A lot of people figured that knocking out the Interpol list was acceptable, but I’ve got real concerns about other agencies completely off the chain blocking content arbitrarily using these notices," Ludlam said.
"I’m yet to be convinced they should be used in this way at all.”
Not all ISPs believe section 313 notices are being issued lawfully, the senator said, with at least one unnamed service provider refusing the notice.
Ludlam said if agencies like ASIC and the ACCC are going to use section 313 to block websites, there should be a public debate around the issue, which should include public consultation and ISP involvement.
Otherwise there is a risk that rights holders could try to block sites that allegedly infringe on copyright, such as file sharing platforms, without any oversight, according to Ludlam.
“Once the copyright industry realises they can just make certain sections of the Internet go dark with no accountability whatsoever, we’re in quite dangerous territory here,” he said.
Ludlam said he would use next week’s senate estimates hearings to question agencies to establish which ones are using section 313 to have websites blocked.
The Australian Communications and Media Authority told Computerworld Australia it “has never issued any notices for blocking or access prevention under section 313 of the Telecommunications Act 1997 for the so called ‘worst of’ list of child sexual abuse websites or for any other reason.”
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission declined to comment when asked if it had made requests under Section 313 of the Act.
“How many other sites are being blocked [that we don’t know about]? If we don’t put some kind of check around this now, where will this end up?” Ludlam said.
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