No limits: Report rejects calls to rein in website-blocking power

A report by parliament's Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications has rejected calls for limits to be imposed on the use of the Section 313(3) of the Telecommunications Act 1997 to block access to online services.

Section 313(3) has been used by government agencies to request that ISPs block their customers' access to websites alleged to be associated with illegal activities. It has also been by the Australian Federal Police to block the spread of malware.

The most high-profile use of the power has been by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission, which, when attempting to block websites associated with financial fraud, issued notices to ISPs that led to the blocking of some 250,000 unrelated sites.

The ASIC debacle came about after it requested ISPs block an IP address instead of a website address or domain. As a result, websites sharing an IP address were erroneously blocked.

One of the two top-line recommendations in today's report was that all agencies that use Section 313 to disrupt online services "have the requisite level of technical expertise within the agency to carry out such activity, or established procedures for drawing on the expertise of other agencies".

Currently Section 313 compels 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".

The breadth of both the agencies able to use the provision in the act and the circumstances under which they can use it was a subject of concern for many of the submissions from non-government organisations to the inquiry.

However, the committee's report rejected imposing limits on either.

"The Committee notes the widespread calls for limits to be placed on which agencies can use s.313, what it can be used against and who can authorise that use," the report states.

"It takes the view that limiting the agencies which can access s.313 is unnecessary— given the limited number of agencies which utilise it— and unnecessarily restrictive."

Similarly limiting the offences against which Section 313 can be used "is unnecessary and overly restrictive".

"The Committee supports the concept of s.313 being a broad and flexible mechanism for responding to changing circumstances in the online environment," the report states.

To combat concerns over the use of the act, particularly in the wake of the mistakes made by ASIC, the committee recommended that whole-of-government guidelines for use of Section 313 be developed.

Those guidelines should cover a clearly defined system of authorisations within agencies for issuing Section 313 notices, the activities that will be subject to disruption, the potential use of 'stop' pages that reveal a page has been blocked and a potential appeal mechanism, and public reporting on the use of the mechanism

"The Committee ... supports the proposal of the Department of Communications for the formulation of whole-of-government guidelines covering the use of s.313 by government agencies," the report states.

"The Committee believes that these guidelines will preserve the effectiveness of s.313 while mitigating potential problems flowing from its."

The inquiry was chaired by Coalition MP Jane Prentice, who tabled the report in the House of Representatives today.

Labor MP Matt Thistlethwaite told the lower house that members of his party on the infrastructure and communications committee backed the report.

A separate inquiry into a government bill that would under some circumstances for ISPs to block access to piracy-linked websites is expected to report this week.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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