Federal agencies that invoke website blocking powers should ensure they have the technical expertise to use them properly, a parliamentary review has concluded.
The review committee, made up of Coalition and Labor MPs, offered bipartisan support for the continued availability of section 313 of the Telecommunications Act, which compels carriers to block access to websites used in illegal activities.
Section 313 powers were almost unknown until the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) accidentally blocked thousands of sites on more than one occasion by misunderstanding how the internet’s addressing system worked.
Those incidents led to the parliamentary review – but the result of the process underwhelmed critics such as Greens communications spokesman Senator Scott Ludlam, who branded it “limp”.
“The Coalition and Labor party have signed off on a committee report that recommends a basic level of technical literacy be applied within departments carrying out unregulated blocking of websites, in order to reduce the likelihood of further acts of massive incompetence," Ludlam said.
"An unregulated site blocking regime just got the nod from a committee that appears to have slept through much of the evidence that was put to it.
"It is the parliamentary equivalent of a vacant stare. The major parties have failed internet users, again.”
In addition to recommending that agencies wishing to avail themselves of website blocking powers know how to use them – either internally or by tapping skills in other agencies - the committee sought the adoption of whole-of-government guidelines for section 313 use.
These include setting internal policies, defining who is authorised to use the powers, and using “stop pages” to notify browsers of blocked websites why the block was in place and who to contact about it.
Laws left alone
Critics of section 313 had been seeking more substantive changes.
In a submission to the review, Electronic Frontiers Australia (EFA) called the web blocking powers “a dangerous impediment to internet freedoms” and “against the public interest”.
“EFA recommends that s313 be struck out, or, in the alternative, its scope be restricted by a narrow definition,” it said.
Internet service provider iiNet sought for the powers to be “restricted to a far narrower range of critical law enforcement, anti-corruption and national security agencies that have a demonstrated need for such a power to block online services”.
It also wanted the committee to consider whether there were better ways of dealing with the problem – “alternative legal or practical approaches” – than website blocks.
And Assistant Professor Bruce Baer Arnold of the Canberra Law School raised “substantive concerns regarding proportionality, effectiveness and appropriateness” of the powers.
“In the absence of any indication that legitimate requests for warrants are being refused by the courts the committee should question whether there is a need for warrantless access under s 313,” he said.
“I suggest that the committee should resist proposals based on what is convenient for Commonwealth officials and peers in other governments.”
However, agencies with access to the powers largely advocated to retain them.
ASIC – whose misuse of the powers led to the review – backed retaining the ability to make and authorise section 313 blocks itself, though it agreed transparency and accountability could be improved.
The Australian Federal Police (AFP) made similar assertions to continue operation of section 313 in its current form.
“Given the pace of technological change and the prevalence of criminal activity being conducted or facilitated online, it is important that section 313 continues to provide law enforcement agencies sufficient scope to engage with service providers to prevent the commission of serious criminal offences,” it said.
“Offences that are not currently committed online could in the future transition to the online environment as a result of technological changes.”
'Breadth is strength'
The review committee agreed the ASIC incidents were cause to tighten processes for section 313 use and for increased transparency.
However, it refused to recommend limiting the number of agencies that could use the powers.
“There is not, on the face of it, any problem with the type of agencies using s.313 or the offences against which it is being used,” it said.
The committee also backed the need for the powers.
“The committee believes there is strong evidence of the need for s.313, whether constituted in its current form or in a modified form,” it added.
“Section 313 provides an effective measure of protection to the Australian community in managing illegal online activity, and … the broad nature of s.313 is its strength—allowing it to be adapted to a range of circumstances as the nature of technology and crime evolve.”