The secret business of blocking websites

Imagine your business suddenly disappeared from the net – none of your customers, staff or suppliers could see your website and your internet provider refuses to tell you what the problem is.

Eventually you find a government department decided you or another business on the same server could be breaking the law and ordered you to be blocked from the web.

You received no notice and have no appeal against the government’s order, in fact you may not even know who ordered the block or why.

This is the reality of doing business in modern Australia.

Nearly five years ago this column looked at why internet filtering is bad for business.

At the time, the federal government was proposing to create a national internet filter blocking Australians from accessing sites deemed to inappropriate by the Classification Board.

That proposal was quietly dropped late last year after a long campaign by the tech community and civil libertarians who pointed out a filter would be open to abuse and an expensive waste of time.

One of the objections against the proposed filter was the risk of innocent websites being blocked by mistake. There had already been the example of a Brisbane dentist whose site had been added to a government internet blacklist in error.

What wasn’t realised at the time of the debate was that the powers to create a de facto internet filter already existed under Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act.

Last month, a Melbourne education website discovered it had been blocked by some internet provider and couldn’t figure out why – it turned out their server was shared with a financial scheme that had raised the suspicions of the Australian Securities and Investment Commission.

Two days ago, ASIC told a Parliamentary committee that it had inadvertently blocked over 250,000 websites through the use of Section 313 notices over the last 12 months.

Section 313 obliges any telecommunications provider – fixed phones, mobile network operators or internet service providers – to assist state or federal government officers.

This ‘assistance’ can include blocking access to websites a government officer believes is necessary as part of “enforcing the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties”.

ASIC, along with the Federal Police and other government agencies, has been using Section 313 notices to prevent Australian internet users from accessing sites they believe are breaching the law.

While there’s no doubt ASIC’s intention is honourable, the potential for abuse is huge, “laws imposing pecuniary penalties” opens a whole range of reasons for businesses to having their websites blocked.

If you’ve forgotten to pay your business registration fees, have fines owing to the tax office or have outstanding parking infringements or pending complaints with an office of fair trading – state agencies have Section 313 powers as well – then you could find your website has been blocked.

Even more worrying, these powers don’t just extend to blocking websites. Section 313 applies as much to web hosting, fixed landlines or mobile phone services.

Probably the most disturbing aspect about Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act is that there is no oversight or accountability. No court order is needed before a request is made and no central government authority keeps a record of the notices that have been issued.

Basically, your business can disappear off the internet at the whim of an anonymous state or federal public servant and there is no way you will know what has happened, let alone appealing the actions.

While there may be fair reasons for blocking websites promoting or facilitating illegal activities, the lack of accountability should disturb every Australian business owner or internet user.

At the very least Section 313 should require a proper process for issuing requests and have a central agency, say the Australian Communications and Media Authority, to process and monitor these notices.

As the internet, web and phone systems have become essential to modern business, it’s essential we can rely upon these services without the risk of arbitrarily ‘disappearing’ on the stroke of a public servant’s pen.

You may want to ask your local MP when they intend to change this dangerous and ill-thought-out law before your business is affected.

Paul Wallbank‘s latest book, eBu$iness, Seven Steps to Online Success, shows how business can get online quickly and cost effectively using web 2.0, cloud computing, social media and e-commerce tools.

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