Proposed law could block online terror content during ‘crisis events’

eSafety Commissioner should take interim steps to block sites, report says

A government-convened taskforce that brought together major Australian Internet service providers (ISPs) and representatives of digital platforms has called for “legislative amendments to establish a content blocking framework for terrorist and extreme violent material online in crisis events”.

The government over the weekend released the report of the Australian Taskforce To Combat Terrorist And Extreme Violent Material Online, which made the recommendation.

While legislative measures are pursued by the government, the report says, the eSafety Commissioner should work with telco industry group Communications Alliance to develop a protocol that would govern the “interim use” by the commissioner of section 581(2A) of the Telecommunications Act to block services during an “online crisis event”.

S581(2A) is a short but broadly worded section of the act allowing the commissioner to issue written directions to a carrier or service provider “in connection with performing any of the Commissioner’s functions or exercising any of the Commissioner’s powers”.

The use of Section 313(a) of the Telco Act has come under significant scrutiny over the last few years. S313(a) creates a similar power for a broad array of federal, state and territory government agencies, allowing them to issue notices to telcos that requiring the telcos to render assistance in relation to enforcing criminal laws, protecting national security, and protecting public revenue.

The report defines an “online crisis event” as an event “that involves terrorist or extreme violent material being disseminated online in a manner likely to cause significant harm to the Australian community, and that warrants a rapid, coordinated and decisive response by industry and relevant government agencies”.

The taskforce’s report recommends that the eSafety Commissioner consider using that section of the act to “direct the ISPs currently blocking domains hosting the footage of the Christchurch attacks and the alleged perpetrator’s manifesto to maintain these blocks while the feasibility of longer-term arrangements is assessed”.

In the wake of the Christchurch terror attack, Telstra, Optus and Vodafone all took steps to block sites that hosted copies of the video made by the gunman. Facebook Live was used to stream the attack.

The blocked sites included 8chan, 4chan and Voat.

The taskforce was established out of a post-Christchurch summit convened by Prime Minister Scott Morrison. That summit included representatives of Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter, as well as telcos Telstra, Vodafone, TPG and Optus, heads of government agencies, Attorney-General Christian Porter, the then communications minister Senator Mitch Fifield, and home affairs minister Peter Dutton.

Major tech companies in May signed the ‘Christchurch Call’ which included a number of the measures contemplated by the report and included a commitment to tackling the “dissemination of terrorist and violent extremist content” using online services.

Earlier this year the government passed legislation imposing new obligations on online service providers when it comes to reporting and removing “abhorrent violent material”.

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Tags terrorismsite blocking lawseSafety CommissionerChristchurch attack

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