Monday, 20 May 2013

Australia's unannounced 'totalitarian' web filter causes alarm

 Ian Steadman

Australia's government is under fire after it appears to have introduced web censorship without warning, expanding already-controversial powers to block access to child pornography into a wider web filtering system.
The reluctance of the government to release information about who has requested sites be blocked, and lists of those sites, has also alarmed many Australians. Two convenors from Melbourne Free University (MFU), whose site was blocked without warning or explanation on 4 April, have described it as a "glimpse [of] the everyday reality of living under a totalitarian government".
For a country that perhaps has a reputation for taking it easy, Australia's governments have been particularly keen on web censorship. In 2008, a web filter was proposed that would have potentially blocked as many as 10,000 sites by placing them on a blacklist, but years of criticism from industry, political and public groups -- including Anonymous " declaring war" on it, and Wikileaks publishing the confidential blacklist to show it included some sites that were only, contrary to government assurances, subjectively offensive -- led to the idea being dropped in November 2012.
That might have been the end of it, but no -- instead of going through legislative channels, it looks like web censorship is back, and this time it's taking advantage of a legal loophole. On 4 April, more than 1,200 sites were suddenty unavailable to Australian web users
One of those sites that was blocked was that for the MFU, a non-profit organisations that runs talks and workshops about "radical equality" and other activist topics. Jasmine-Kim Westendorf and Jem Atahan, convenors at MFU, wrote a blog post about their Kafkaesque experience of finding their site blocked for nine days and struggling to find any kind of answer as to why:
"After persistent questioning, our local internet supplier reluctantly told us that the internet address of our website had been blocked by the 'Australian Government'. Even more alarmingly, they said they were legally unable to 'provide the details regarding who has blocked the IP or why'. Our first thought was, what have we done to draw the eye of the authorities? Who have we had speak at the MFU that might be on a blacklist? In that instant, we glimpsed the everyday reality of living under a totalitarian government."
The fact that someone, somewhere in the Australian government has been blocking websites didn't go unnoticed, and journalist, advocacy bodies like the Electronic Frontier Foundation and even politicians began demanding answers. Eventually, Aussie tech website Delimiter  broke the story that the sites had been blocked at the request of Australia's financial regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC).
The issue relates to the Telecommunications Act 1997, clause 313 of which describes the "obligations" of service providers "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".
When the more draconian web filter was dropped last November, its main proponent, communications minister Stephen Conroy, instead switched attention to the Telecommunications Act. He described a "voluntary" filtering system that he would like ISPs and other service providers (like Vodafone) to sign up to, and it would only seek to block sites which had been blacklisted by Interpol -- the vast majority of which host child pornography.
However, it appears that using clause 313 of the Telecommunications Act in this way has set a worrying precedent (something that had been foreseen by some experts at the time). ASIC has been submitting lists of sites to the filter blacklist to try and crack down on financial scams. One of those sites was hosted on an IP address shared by those 1,200 other sites that were blocked in early April, alerting Australian web users to the silent creep of internet filtering, proceeding on without their knowledge.
The fact that government ministries are now able to ask ISPs to take down sites without any kind of legal or regulatory oversight has, unsurprisingly, angered a lot of opposition politicians. Australian Greens senator Scott Ludlam told the Australian Financial Review: "It's extraordinarily difficult to find who has issued these notices and on behalf of whom, for what categories of content, or what you do if you find yourself on a block list. We've got a very serious problem and it's not at all clear whether the government knows what it's actually doing."
Australians will now have to petition their government to get this situation under control.