Section 313: iiNet, industry orgs seek limits on website blocking

Limits needed on organisations that can force ISPs to block websites

Internet service provider iiNet, the Internet Society of Australia (ISOC-AU), and industry bodies the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association (AMTA) and the Communications Alliance have all called for restrictions on the government agencies that can issue requests under the Telecommunications Act 1997 for ISPs to block websites.

Under Section 313(3) of the act a carriage service provider must "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 use by government agencies of Section 313 of the act to request that ISPs block subscriber access to websites is currently the subject of a parliamentary inquiry by the Standing Committee on Infrastructure and Communications.

The legislation has been used to order ISPs to block their customers from accessing websites hosting illegal material; for example, the Australian Federal Police has ordered the blocking of websites that host child abuse images.

The use of the act to block websites became a subject of debate in 2013 after the Australian Securities and Investment Commission ordered a number of ISPs to block access to websites being employed for investment fraud.

ASIC ordered ISPs to block IP addresses linked to a number of the websites, in the process blocking access to unrelated websites.

In its own submission to the inquiry, the watchdog organisation revealed that people issuing the Section 313 notices "were not aware that a single IP address can host multiple websites".

An internal review triggered by the incident found that the organisation's Section 313 notices had erroneously led to the blocking of more than 250,000 websites that hosted "no substantive content" related to ASIC investigations.

Part of the problem with the legislation as it currently stands is that it's too broad with respect to the organisations that can employ Section 313, according to iiNet's submission to the inquiry.

Section 313 as stands mean there is an "almost unlimited range of government and law enforcement agencies that can rely on the powers set out in section 313," the submission states.

"The use of section 313 should be restricted to a far narrower range of the critical law enforcement, anticorruption and national security agencies that have a demonstrated need for such a power to block online services. It would not be necessary or proportional, for example, for local councils to be able to rely on section 313(1) or (3) to request an ISP to block a site."

A joint submission by the Australian Mobile Telecommunications Association and the Communications Alliance argued that only "organisations dealing with law enforcement at major crime level, national security, and revenue matters of major significance" and national security agencies should be able to use Section 313(3).

"The Associations note that some service providers have received s.313(3) requests in the past from organisations such as the RSPCA and ASIC, and indeed even from non-Government entities such as legal assistance organisations."

Similarly, ISOC-AU argued that "the list of agencies permitted to make such requests should be kept as small as possible".

"This list should be no larger than those agencies that are currently able to request surveillance warrants, and such requests should be centrally managed through a single agency, such as the [Australian Communications and Media Authority or] the Attorney-General’s Department," the organisation's submission states.

iiNet said that a court order to block websites should be required, and that such an order should be sent to all ISPs.

"Requiring only a small section of the industry to block sites will be ineffective and therefore, creates unnecessary costs for those required to implement blocks," the organisation argued.

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