Google Australia warns govt to tread carefully on new site block powers

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Google Australia warns govt to tread carefully on new site block powers

Argues they're unnecessary, could curb freedom of expression.

Google Australia has warned that the government risks overblocking and a curb on freedom of expression with new site and content blocking powers under consideration.

The government is proposing a formal content blocking regime to deal specifically “with online crisis events that involve terrorist or extreme violent material.”

It envisaged the power would disallow the blocking of websites “on a routine or ongoing basis”, while affording internet providers civil immunity for instituting the blocks.

The government is also proposing related powers “to disrupt access to seriously harmful online material made available via search engines, app stores and other ancillary service providers.”

The powers are intended to formalise an ad-hoc mechanism used to block access to materials associated with the Christchurch attack a year ago.

Part of this mechanism utilised a broader power already in federal telecommunications legislation; the idea now is to create a more specific power just for “terrorist or extreme violent material.”

Google said it is “committed to ensuring we are doing all we can to fight the hatred and extremism that lead to terrorist violence”, and that it worked “constructively with governments” to do so.

However, it questioned the need for an additional content blocking power to be legislated.

“On the subject of blocking terrorist and extreme violent material online, appropriate legislative instruments already exist to address these issues efficiently,” it said in a submission to the government. [pdf]

“However, if the proposal for additional legislative provisions were to go ahead, then it should be limited to blocking with respect to specific offending material, within a context that makes that material unlawful, and we would also urge the utmost caution, in the public interest, to ensure that blocking entire sites is not overly broad. 

“After all, sites that host user generated content may feature a wide variety of material; blocking access to the site due to terrorist or extreme violent material may also render significant legitimate material inaccessible.”

Google said any new powers “should be narrowly tailored to address only those 'worst of the worst' platforms and services that willfully and systematically fail to respond to valid legal removal requests regarding specific items of identified content.” 

“The law should also focus on truly worst-of-the-worst content that would clearly constitute criminal offences,” it said.

In addition, any scheme that tried to disrupt access to material via search engines  “should specifically focus on notice-and-takedown of specific illegal material, as opposed to more vague concepts like ‘de-ranking’ harmful online content that is otherwise legal under Australian law,” Google argued.

“It is essential in a democratic society that people are able to access content that is otherwise lawfully available,” the company said.

“Search engines play an important role in facilitating access on the internet, enabling people to access lawful information, impart and disseminate it.

“Placing restrictions on the types of content that can be accessed through search engines would interfere with the right of freedom of expression, and the extent to which people can access and hear different views, as well as share their own.”

The Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) was behind an infamous site blocking error back in 2013 where it accidentally blocked access to many more sites than it had been targeting using existing powers.

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