ASIC debacle: Conroy open to transparency over website blocks

Senator Stephen Conroy is looking at how to avoid the ASIC "mistake" of blocking innocent websites

The Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE) is looking into improving transparency of the use of section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, according to Senator Stephen Conroy.

Section 313 of the Act requires that a carrier do its “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”.

Civil liberties activists raised concerns over the use of section 313 after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) ordered an IP block of alleged fraud sites.

The block rendered a number other websites that shared the same IP address inaccessible to some Australian browsers.

“I think there’s a good argument that people are putting forward [that] there should be a greater transparency about what’s happening to ensure that mistakes, like ASIC have made in this example, don’t happen,” Conroy told Computerworld Australia in a one-on-one interview.

“I’ve asked my department to put some suggestions to me about how we can strengthen the transparency.”

This could include a notice that would alert people that the page they are trying to access has been blocked and a point of contact for people to find out more information. This is a process that already occurs for sites listed on Interpol's 'worst of' list, with information for avenues of review included on the front page of blocked sites.

“So I think things like that are very simple, straightforward measures that shouldn’t be of concern to anybody,” Conroy said.

Conroy said he would also be open to the possibility of having a public list of blocked websites, depending on the rationale for a particular block.

However, he said there could be a “need for secrecy” for websites linked to criminal investigations.

“But [I’m] happy to look into all of these sorts of matters,” Conroy said.

The minister said he was reserving judgement on matters of oversight and transparency until his department comes back to him.

“ASIC’s mistake”

Conroy said his department was unaware that ASIC was using section 313 to have websites blocked and the first he heard about it was in the media.

“They don’t tell me what they’re doing [or] what they’re required to do. It would be inappropriate for me to be seeking information from them about corporate investigations,” Conroy said.

“So it’s an ongoing investigation that they shouldn’t be telling politicians about.”

ASIC said it has used section 313 “numerous times”. The recent action, which affected about 1200 websites, including Melbourne Free University, was the first time it has encountered a problem, according to the government agency.

Customers from major Internet service providers, including Telstra, Optus and Vodafone, were unable to access the Melbourne Free University website for nine days.

The convenors of the organisation, which hosts free public lectures, were told by their ISP that it could not reveal why their website was blocked or who blocked it.

“Clearly ASIC have an issue with how they went about it – mistakes were made and we’ve got make sure that we have proper transparency and oversight,” Conroy said.

Conroy denied the use of section 313 was a back door way of implementing an Internet filter, with the controversial ISP-level Internet filter scheme abandoned by Conroy late last year.

Instead of the filter, the Federal Government indicated it would seek to use section 313 to block child abuse websites listed by Interpol, with participation by ISPs voluntary.

“Complying with existing laws is not a back door way of doing anything,” Conroy said. “My department is not involved in any other activity in this area.”

A broader range of sites would have been filtered under the government’s nixed ‘clean feed’ scheme, but Conroy said he was “comfortable” with the current arrangement of only blocking Interpol-listed websites.

“We set out to ensure that Australian’s couldn’t stumble across or find particularly vile pages that involved child abuse,” Conroy said. “I’m very comfortable with where we’ve finished up.”

Follow Stephanie McDonald on Twitter: @stephmcdonald0

Follow Computerworld Australia on Twitter: @ComputerworldAU

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Tags Stephen ConroyAustralian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC)

More about Australian Securities & Investment CommissionFederal GovernmentInterpolOptusTelstra CorporationVodafone

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