Denham Sadler
March 20, 2019

Arbitrary site blocks a 'slippery slope'

Censorship

Arbitrary site blocks a 'slippery slope'

Matt Barrie: "Why isn't Facebook blocked? Are they too big to fail?"

A move by Australia's biggest telcos to arbitrarily block several websites following the Christchurch terrorist attack is a "slippery slope" and sets a "very worrying precedent", according to former government digital lead Paul Shetler.

Australian telcos including Telstra and Optus this week moved to block several websites hosting "footage or sensitive materials" relating to the Christchurch terrorist attack. Some of the websites blocked included a video-hosting platform that had made efforts to remove the video, and a financial news site.

The horrific events in New Zealand, where a far-right extremist terrorist killed 50 people in mosques in Christchurch and livestreamed some of the attack on Facebook, has led to a debate over the responsibility of tech companies to remove offensive content.

While some of the sites blocked include 4chan and 8chan, the telcos also took down Zero Hedge, a libertarian-focused financial news platform, and video-hosting platform LiveLeak, which had earlier said it would not "indulge" the terrorist by hosting the video.

The telcos have said the censorship was not done on the directive of the government or law enforcement, and was done independently by each provider.

"We've started temporarily blocking a number of sites that are hosting footage of Friday's terrorist attack in Christchurch. We understand this may inconvenience some legitimate users of these sites, but these are extreme circumstances and we feel this is the right thing to do," Telstra said in a statement.

Each telco made a similar statement on Tuesday.

Former government digital lead and AccelerateHQ co-founder Paul Shetler said the move from the telcos is "very strange" and sets a "very worrying precedent".

"At first I thought this was the government, it normally would be the government if there was a legal reason to do this, but it doesn't appear it was from the government, it was a decision made by these telcos directly. This is the kind of stuff you'd expect to see out of China," Mr Shetler told InnovationAus.com.

"If you're going to do something like this you'd expect the government to do this as a result of a political process, with a law behind it and some order. This seems to be a panicky reaction on the part of private companies."

The lack of transparency around which sites have been blocked and why has proved troubling for some, with Freelancer CEO Matt Barrie saying it is "outrageous".

"This is something out of the playbook you might get from China or North Korea. They've blocked a number of sites, and these are wholesale blocks on entire sites - this is akin to book burning," Mr Barrie told InnovationAus.com.

"This is a really slippery slope. While the blocks today might be primitive, in the future we might get more into content filtering and prosecuting people who access them."

The blocking of Zero Hedge is especially baffling, Mr Shetler said.

"You can make an argument for the likes of 4chan and 8chan, but I don't understand what the basis is for Zero Hedge. It seems like a weird response. I don't know if they were jumping the gun or were really nervous. It doesn't seem very considered or smart," he said.

Users on Zero Hedge had been covering the efforts in New Zealand to block certain websites and some parts of the terrorist's manifesto were posted. The website denied it had ever hosted the video though.

"We were never contacted prior to the censorship. While Australia and New Zealand account for a negligible amount of traffic to Zero Hedge, the stunning arrogance of NZ and Oz telcos to arbitrarily impose nanny-state restrictions on content is more than a little disturbing," the site said.

The blocking of LiveLeak in Australia has also been questioned, with the video hosting platform previously expressly stating that it would be scrubbing the attacker's video from the site.

"The Christchurch shooter wasn't just some random 'nutcase'. He planned not just the murders but also the chaos he would sow with his manifesto which reads like the fevered dream of a fully fledged 'shitposter'. Currently, judging by media coverage and reactions online, he's getting almost exactly what he wanted. We don't intend to indulge him further," LiveLeak said in a statement.

The video was originally livestreamed on Facebook and had appeared on Twitter and YouTube, but none of these tech giants have been blocked by the Australian telcos.

"Facebook livestreamed the video and have said they've pulled over 1 million copies of it, why isn't Facebook blocked? YouTube has hosted countless versions of it, why isn't it being blocked? Are they too big to fail?" Mr Barrie said.

"This is an indiscriminate block on a bunch of random sites. It is an extremely slippery slope to decide what content we can view and not view."

The "arbitrary" blocking sets a "very worrying precedent", Mr Shetler said.

"Who's next? They haven't given any reason, so why not shut down someone else? Once you make arbitrary decisions, there's really no reason to stop. These things never stop with the first sites to be shut down, they just never do. We could wind up with having very few places to go after a certain point," he said.

In a statement, communications minister Mitch Fifield said websites had been "used and abused" during and after the Christchurch attack, but did not address the blocking of certain platforms by telcos this week.

"It is imperative that the global community works together to ensure that technology firms meet their moral obligation to protect the communities which they serve and from which they profit," Senator Fifield said.

"The time has come for those who own and manage platforms to accept a greater responsibility for how they are used. A best endeavours approach is no longer good enough. It's clear that while social media companies have cooperated with authorities to remove some of that disgusting content, more needs to be done. If they won't act, we need to."

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