A "national security" agency under the Attorney-General's remit has been revealed to have used controversial section 313 notices to block websites, the third agency to have taken advantage of the secretive 15-year-old law.
The agency was revealed as a user of the notices at a private May 22 meeting convened by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy (DBCDE), joining the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC) and Australian Federal Police as known users.
But during a budget estimates session this morning, Communications Minister Stephen Conroy refused to disclose the identity of the third agency, sparking accusations of a continuing cover-up.
Abul Rizvi, DBCDE: There has been a third agency that has used that power for blocking purposes once in the Attorney-General's portfolio.
Senator Scott Ludlam: Can you just tell us who it is to save a bit of time. Who is it?
Rizvi: It was in the Attorney-General's portfolio.
Conroy: You'd have to put that question to the Attorney-General.
Ludlam: The department's taken carriage of the issue. Who is the third agency?
Conroy: I'm saying we've indicated which department and if you would like further information you should raise it with the A-G's.
Ludlam: I'm not sure at all on what basis at all you're withholding that information.
Conroy: We've just indicated, the A-G's department's and suggest you take the matter up with the A-G's.
The row sparked an interjection from Liberal Senator Simon Birmingham, and calls for order.
Conroy: We've indicated that the A-G's department have a role in this, and on matters to do with what their role is we're simply saying take it up with A-G's.
Ludlam: I think this is obfuscation for the sake of it.
Conroy: No, it's not a conspiracy Senator Ludlam. Go and ask them the questions.
Ludlam: I didn't say it was a conspiracy. I said it's obfuscation for the sake of it.
Ludlam later quizzed the Attorney-General's Department in a separate hearing, which refused to comment on the identity, citing concerns over "national security".
iTnews is also seeking further comment on the agency's identity.
The Department of Broadband was also caught out selectively revealing the attendees of the May 22 meeting.
Rizvi said the list of attendees were:
- Australian Taxation Office
- Department of Immigration and Citizenship
- Australian Competition and Consumer Commission
- Australian Communications and Media Authority
- Australian Human Rights Commission
- Australian Customs and Border Protection Service
- Australian Crime Commission
- Australian Federal Police
- Australian Securities and Investment Commission
- Attorney-General's department.
However, when Senator Ludlam quizzed the Department on whether ASIO also attended, they were forced into an embarrassing admission after a long period of whispered conversation.
"ASIO was present," Rizvi confirmed.
"Mr Rizvi. Is there a reason why you didn't acknowledge their presence in the first list that you gave me just 30 seconds ago?" Ludlam said.
Conroy interjected: "I was simply clarifying with Mr Rizvi the answer and we've provided it."
"After I had to name them it was provided," Ludlam said, adding "that's really misleading. How many other agencies do I need to name to see if they were also there?"
The May 22 meeting was sparked by an ASIC bungle that resulted in over 1000 websites becoming subject to a block effected using a section 313 notice under the Telecommunications Act.
The consequence has cast a light over the stealthy and apparently unregulated use of section 313 notices by federal — and possibly state — agencies.
Rizvi said the agenda of the May 22 meeting was convened "to discuss the use of 313 for blocking purposes. It was to discuss what agencies had or had not used that power in the past, to discuss those agencies that had used the power what approach they took, and to discuss possible means of improving management of the use of section 313 for blocking purposes."
He said that the DBCDE was only aware of the three federal agencies that had used Section 313 notices.
A question was taken on notice from Ludlam as to how many agencies could take advantage of Section 313 for website blocking purposes.
"I think it's extraordinary that we don't presently know who could be issuing these notices to knock content out," Ludlam said.
"It's extremely alarming".
There was no evidence of use of Section 313 by state agencies although no such agencies attended the DBCDE-convened meeting.
Ludlam also pressed Conroy and the DBCDE on possible transparency measures to be worked up in the wake of the ASIC web blocking scandal.
Conroy agreed there needed "to be a greater degree of transparency" with Section 313 usage.
Ludlam said the evidence of the department this morning "is one of those conversations where you come out of it much more alarmed than when you went in."
Conroy responded: "No, you've set out to try and create alarm.
"You can convince yourself of anything, Senator Ludlam."