Industry, activists welcome Internet filter back down

Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) and the Internet Industry Association (IIA) have welcomed the federal government’s back down on Internet filtering, now limiting blocked websites to child abuse sites.

While the federal government had been seeking a mandatory Internet filtering scheme for the past five years, Communications Minister, Senator Stephen Conroy, has now said the government will seek to block child abuse websites listed by Interpol, under section 313 of the Telecommunications Act.

“Clearly we welcome their recognition that their previous policy was fundamentally flawed and we’re very glad that they’ve finally decided to abandon it – and we suspect they probably made that decision some time ago,” Jon Lawrence, executive officer at EFA told Computerworld Australia.

“Looking at the current proposal in terms of the Interpol list and the limited nature of it, it does seem to be a much more reasonable approach – a much more proportionate approach – so we cautiously welcome it.”

Telstra and Optus have already implemented an Internet filter, with Telstra blocking child abuse websites managed by Interpol since June 2011.

“The list is managed by Interpol and all sites are verified as being illegal under Australian law by the Australian Federal Police,” a Telstra spokesperson told Computerworld Australia.

Lawrence said the back flip by the government could have been due to a lack of public and political support for the proposal, with the Coalition also opposing the proposal.

“So the prospect of them getting any legislation through the Senate [was] nil. They’ve also presumably and hopefully listened to the people and the civil society campaign which has opposed this very loudly. It’s a deeply unpopular policy and I suspect they’ve known that for some time and now felt that this particular Friday is the day to finally abandon it,” Lawrence said.

Shadow communications minister Malcolm Turnbull said the “humiliating” backdown was a result of the government coming to the realisation that it would be unable to pass the legislation through parliament.

"[Conroy] hasn't turned into a libertarian. His instinct is always to control and dominate. This is the minister who boasted that he had the power to make telco executives wear red underpants on their heads. The Internet filter has been abandoned only because Conroy has been forced to recognise he cannot get it through the parliament," Turnbull wrote in a Google+ post.

The IIA also welcomed the changes and applauded the government for focusing on blocking online child abuse material.

“ISPs recognise their role in assisting law enforcement agencies and meeting their obligations under the law. Blocking the Interpol ‘worst of’ list is a positive step in preventing Australian Internet users from committing the offence of accessing child abuse material,” Peter Lee, IIA chief executive, said in a statement.

While ISP iiNet strongly opposed the Internet filter initially proposed by the federal government, Steve Dalby, chief regulatory officer at the company, said it would comply any legal requirements.

“We will meet our obligations to prevent the use of our networks for the commission of a crime under section 313 of the Telecommunications Act. This has always been the case and continues to be so,” Dalby said.

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Potential changes to the Telecommunications Act

Philip Catania, partner and national technology law leader at law firm Corrs Chambers Westgarth, said the Telecommunications Act may need to be amended to clarify the role ISPs must play in blocking websites.

Section 313 of the Act includes the requirement that a carrier do their “best to prevent telecommunications networks and facilities from being used in, or in relation to, the commission of offences against the laws of the Commonwealth or of the states and territories”.

He said while the current legislation does provide sufficient power to prevent consumers accessing certain websites, some changes would be required to the Act to extend those powers, and it will be compulsory for ISPs to adhere to the Act and block Interpol-listed websites.

“I think it may be that potentially the government might want to specify with greater clarity the types of websites that people will be prevented from accessing or that ISPs will … need to put in procedures to limit access to [them], as opposed to leaving it to some fairly broad-ranging powers of ACMA,” Catania said.

Any changes to the Telecommunications Act would require passing amendments through both the House of Representatives and the Senate, according to Catania, and he believes it would be unlikely that amendments would be passed before the end of the year.

“They might try to rush it through quickly if they have bipartisan support, but what would normally happen is you would have to produce a draft of the legislation, it would have to be commented on, there might be a committee that would look at it and then the committee would report back to the Senate or to the House of Reps,” Catania said.

“If it passes through one house, it would then have to pass through the other, so that could take quite a few months. It would be unlikely but not impossible for it to be done before the end of the year.”

Any proposed amendments would likely be put up for public comment, but Catania said any opposition to the amendments would be unlikely to have an impact in passing the amendments due to the government’s “commitment” to passing legislation.

The Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security is currently conducting an inquiry into reforms to Australia’s interception and security legislation, including the Telecommunications Act 1997.

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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