In the midst of the information age, it’s not uncommon to see government’s throughout the globe censoring content. One example of this are social media restrictions in China. However, on the grounds of national security and public safety, other governments have blocked content. As the internet content has expanded, Governments have been tasked with balancing freedoms while preventing harm. As we will see below, Australia is no exception to this.
The Australian Government has a variety of powers under several pieces of legislation. One of these legally allows the Government to block access to certain websites. The Telecommunications Act 1997 regulates the activity of internet service providers within the telecommunications industry. Specifically, Section 313(3) requires providers within the telecommunications industry to provide government agencies with assistance in upholding Australian laws. This can relate to criminal and civil offences, national security, or activity that threatens public revenue. This allows the government to ask internet service providers to assist them. A way of doing this is by blocking access to websites with harmful content.
The Government has sought to provide transparency on it’s internet censorship laws. This has been done by releasing guidelines on section 313(3) to disrupt access to online services. The guidelines recommend a number of “good practice” principles that government agencies should consider when making a request to block. Agencies should:
- Obtain authority and approval from a Senior Executive
- Publish the internal policies and procedures of the disruption request
- Limit blocking to sites containing serious offences and national security threats
- Provide information to the public regarding any requests made
- Provide an avenue for complaints and feedback
- Have access to technical experts
Blocking Power in Use
The Australian Federal Police have mostly used their powers to block access to child exploitation material. The other main agency to exercise this power so far is the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC). Their main goal was to ban websites that were fraudulent. However, it was ASIC’s use of this power that resulted in a review of it’s overall effectiveness. In 2013, over a thousand lawful sites were blocked because of one site. ASIC made the request under the impression that the address they sought to block only had the illegal website linked to it. Other websites had the same address and they lost access as a result of the ban.
Online businesses are susceptible to these exercises of power, especially with the limited avenues for complaint. If you operate an online business, a lawyer with an understanding of websites and IT should be consulted in order to safeguard your business.
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