Govt opens inquiry into website blocking

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Updated: Section 313 comes under scrutiny.

The Federal Government has opened a parliamentary inquiry into a controversial section of the Telecommunications Act which allows law enforcement agencies to block websites.

The committee, established on Wednesday, will investigate whether Section 313 of the Act is being used appropriately by agencies such as the Australian Federal Police to disrupt illegal online activities.

The controversial powers have been the subject of criticism after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission last year admitted it inadvertently blocked 250,000 websites in an effort to block just 1200 while using the section.

The provision of the Act has been in place for almost 15 years, but law enforcement agencies including ASIC and the AFP - along with another agency whose identity has been kept secret for "national security" reasons - started using the law vigorously from 2012.

The AFP used the legislation to block 21 websites which had been listed on Interpol's 'worst of' list of child abuse websites between June 2011 and February 2013. 

Section 313 notices allow law enforcement agencies to request telecommunications companies to block websites believed to be involved in illegal activities. Agencies using the provision are not currently required to be transparent about its use.

“How law enforcement agencies use section 313 to request the disruption of such services is an important public policy question," the committee’s terms of reference state.

"Section 313 is also used for other purposes, but the committee will inquire solely into and report on government agency use of section 313 for the purpose of disrupting illegal online services."

The committee will consider which government agencies should be allowed to use Section 313, what level of authority such agencies will need to request to use it, what types of illegal online activities should fall under the provision, and how transparent and accountable those using Section 313 should be.

It will accept submissions until August 22, and expects to make a final report in July next year.

The panel is made up of ten members - six Coalition MPs, three Labor MPs and Clive Palmer - and is chaired by Queensland Liberal MP Jane Prentice.

Greens Senator Scott Ludlam, a vocal critic of the use of the notices, said the Government should be commended for recognising the importance of the issue and the public interest in disclosing how agencies are interpreting their legal powers.

He said while he was sceptical of a Government-dominated committee inquiring into government policy, if evidence pertaining to how the notices are being used is disclosed as a result of the committee’s inquiries, then the exercise would prove its own worth.

“There are two things that could come out of this that would be positive - transparency on when and how they are used, and very tight constraints on their use,” he told iTnews.

Search giant Google weighed into the debate around Section 313 in March this year, criticising the AFP and ASIC for "abusing" the Act to block websites.

It said law enforcement agencies had been intepreting the provision more widely than intended, and called on the Government to repeal the "outdated" legislation.

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