Govt site-blocking put into action

Denham Sadler
Senior Reporter

The federal government’s new site-blocking powers have been put into use, with internet service providers ordered to restrict access to eight websites hosting terrorist-related content.

Following the Christchurch terrorist attack in March, which was livestreamed on Facebook, Australian internet service providers (ISPs) voluntarily moved to block more than 40 sites that were hosting the video or the manifesto of the attacker.

Websites that were temporarily blocked included 4chan, 8chan, LiveLeak and Zero Hedge.

This was done without direction from the government or a solid legal basis, leading to the ISPs to call for more definite and clear guidelines. The government unveiled these regulations last month, including new rules allowing telcos to block sites hosting “harmful and extreme content” during and after a “crisis event”.

The eSafety Commissioner has been given responsibility for directing which sites need to be blocked by the telcos, after giving them the chance to take down the offending content.

These powers have now been implemented for the first time, with the eSafety Commissioner ordering Australian telcos to block eight websites still hosting video of the Christchurch attack or the attacker’s manifesto.

These sites have been blocked voluntarily by the ISPs since the March attack, but have now been ordered to continue this for at least six months or until the content is removed.

The eSafety Commissioner consulted with the administrators of the websites before issuing the directive, giving them an opportunity to remove the content. Of the more than 40 websites blocked immediately following the attack, only these eight did not comply.

The eight offending websites have not been named by the government.

The sites would be blocked for six months, with the eSafety Commissioner to monitor whether the content has been removed.

Communications and Cyber Safety minister Paul Fletcher said the government was giving telcos “certainty and clarity” with the new site-blocking scheme.

“We cannot allow this type of horrific material to be used to incite further violence or terrorist acts. Website blocking is not a universal solution to online harms, but it is important that this option be available to the eSafety Commissioner in extreme cases such as this,” Mr Fletcher said.

The directive has been welcomed by industry representative group Communications Alliance.

“Australia’s major ISPs stepped up quickly after the Christchurch attacks and, of their own accord, blocked access to websites that were hosting the terror-related material,” Communications Alliance chief executive John Stanton said.

“Industry recognised that this was the right thing to do, without explicit government direction, and we are pleased to see the framework that is now in place as a result of constructive collaboration between industry, government and its agencies.”

The new rules stem from the Christchurch Call, an agreement between governments and tech firms following the New Zealand terror attack, and recommendations from a taskforce formed by the government.

The site-blocking regime has led to concerns over censorship and a lack of oversight. The Opposition has said it’s important these issues are raised in the public debate over the regulations.

“In an open liberal society it’s important that we debate these issues and it’s important we have this debate in public,” shadow assistant minister for cybersecurity Tim Watts told in August.

“We should be clear about the limitations of the tech intervention too. Any site-blocking regime will not block everyone from accessing the desired sites, there are always tech workarounds for these things.”

The government is also searching for a “tech silver bullet” rather than taking a more holistic approach, Mr Watts said.

“We shouldn’t kid ourselves that technology alone can be the silver bullet here. If you look at the Christchurch Call, the countries and tech companies agreed on a holistic effort to respond to this online violent radicalisation,” he said.

“Blocking sites is one measure but there are also a wide range of non-technological interventions that are needed to accompany that.”

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