June 6, 2013 | By Danny O'Brien

Helpful ISP is Too Helpful: Australia's Censorship Fiasco, And How It Could Have Been Stopped

Australian Internet users have been cursed for over a decade by governments who appear to neither understand nor care about the consequences of Internet censorship. The current Communications minister, Stephen Conroy, has been particular notorious on this matter: after failing to get parliamentary approval for his Internet blacklist plans, he announced that government departments, including his own, had powers to block websites anyway under the ambiguously-written powers of Section 313 of the fifteen-year old Telecommunications Act.

Now he is reaping the predictable results of that decision. Arbitrary blocks on websites have been taking place without his knowledge or any transparency, by an array of government bureacracies. By one of these groups' own estimates, as few as a thousand and as much as quarter of a million legitimate websites could have been incorrectly censored. Conroy's department, supposedly in charge of both government Internet policy and censorship, knew nothing of these blocks until—quite accidentally—groups like the Melbourne Free University and EFF independently discovered evidence of the secret censorship.

His recent attempts to stonewall against a barrage of questions asked by Senator Scott Ludlam below is worth watching, to demonstrate just how such ill-considered censorship can spiral out of control, and, when exposed, how damning such revelations can be. The moment when Conroy flounders to avoid Ludlam's question, and the Senator jokes that "helpful minister is helpful," is grimly amusing. What follows is simply shocking.

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The story so far: two months ago, we were approached by the Melbourne Free University, who had discovered that their own website (hosted in the US) was blocked by Australian ISPs. When they asked a local Internet access providers why their site was unviewable in Australia, they were told that it was a national government order, and that the providers could not tell them about it.

When EFF investigated further, we faced the same stonewalling, including a pointed refusal by an Australian upstream Internet provider AAPT to confirm or deny that the blocking order came from the government. Based on comments made to us by individuals in the ISP industry, we speculated at the time that that the block was connected to a press release put out in March 22 by the Australian Security and Investments Commission, the Australian financial regulatory body, where they claimed to have "blocked websites used by ... fraudulent financial services businesses."

Finally, after weeks of questioning the Australian Green Party, and investigative journalism by Renai LeMay of Delimiter, Australia's Ministry of Communications belatedly admitted that the block was from ASIC. In a clumsy attempt to silence a single site involved in a fraud case, ASIC had demanded ISPs block a specific IP, which was also hosting thousands of other virtual hosts, including the Melbourne Free University.

In a series of Senate committee hearings this week, Ludlam continued to press the point to find out how far this unsupervised censorship had gone. Under questioning, Conroy's team discovered that ASIC had blocked on a total of ten occasions, and that other government departments had also exercised unchecked and secret censorship powers. At one point, they refused to name one of these departments as it was a "national security matter." Ludlam helped the Minister's recall by asking for a full list of who attended a recent high-level government meeting to untangle the mess, then asked them again whether the Australian Security Intelligence Organization, Australia's national security service, was present. Conroy's team finally admitted that the ASIO was present, despite having neglected to name them in the original list.

Conroy's department has had to be dragged into the light and is still shamefully prevaricating over the answers, despite their own concession that "more transparency is needed."

Transparency will never be enough: Internet censors always claim their lists must be secret. And with government secrecy cloaking any process, true oversight is impossible.

That said, it is equally shocking that, after the huge furore over Conroy's previous attempt to block the Internet, the silent censorship of ASIC and others continued for so long.

The blame for that should be in part at the feet of the ISPs who went along with these Section 313 orders. Telstra and AAPT not only apparently caved without complaint to the government, they also refused to reveal what was going on to anyone else, even when the news leaked out. EFF's Who Has Your Back catalogues US companies' occasional battles with government in defence of their users' rights. Telstra and AAPT executives and employees should know that part of the responsibility of their work is to stand up for their customers' connectivity and the free speech that underlies their business. A single court challenge, a single whistle-blower, a single press release challenging Section 313's unaccountability, would have revealed Australia's silent censorship. As dozens of other companies who do demonstrate that level of social responsibility have shown, it's the professional thing to do.

The Internet Society of Australia and Electronic Frontiers Australia have called upon the government and other stakeholders to reform Section 313 and current practice. If ISPs want to be truly helpful to their users, they should step forward and lead such demands.


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