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Australia's net filter sneaks into operation through back door

Regulator's ban on dodgy shares site wipes out hundreds, exposes censorship mechanism

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Australia's national internet filter has re-emerged as an incompetence-powered zombie, after the nation's corporate regulator mistakenly blocked access to hundreds of sites.

The regulator in question is the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), which says its role is “ensuring that Australia’s financial markets are fair and transparent, supported by confident and informed investors and consumers.”

In pursuit of those goals, in March, the Commission issued a warning notice about the activities of an outfit called Global Capital Wealth, and accused the investment organisation of running "scam" websites “which purport to provide share trading services”. Such activities are illegal and ASIC therefore “blocked access to these websites”.

ASIC was able to do so by invoking section 313 of Australia's Telecommunications Act, which says, in part “A carrier or carriage service provider must ... do the carrier's best or the provider's best to prevent telecommunications networks and facilities from being used in, or in relation to, the commission of offences against the laws of the Commonwealth or of the States and Territories.”

That section has been used by Australia's government to encourage telcos to adopt Interpol's “Worst of” list, a document comprising "a list of domains containing the websites that disseminate the most severe child abuse material worldwide."

Australia last year decided to adopt that list and suggested telcos use it after reading Section 313. Doing so was decided on after concerted opposition to a rival proposal for a national internet filter saw that idea abandoned. Telcos and ISPs didn't seem to mind and the debate cooled down.

But the debate is now white hot again, because the IP address ASIC offered up for Global Capital Wealth did not belong to it alone. Instead it was a hosting company's IP address and numerous sites lived behind it. When access to Global Capital Wealth's site was blocked, hundred of other sites also found themselves inaccessible.

Some complained and one caught the attention of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation. Things burbled along for a while until local news outlet Delimiter joined the dots this week.

Questions are now being asked about just how it is possible for ASIC, or other agencies, to add sites to the list telcos are asked to block under Section 313 and why there's no oversight of the process for doing so.

Just why ASIC is unaware that one IP address can point to many websites is also something many would like to know.

Those inclined to believe this situation is the government creating a filter by stealth are not being shy of saying so.

Activists and media (including The Reg) have deluged the relevant ministers and agencies with questions about just how and why this happened.

The relevant Ministers, while admitting the incident is not a good look, are so far adamant this is not a filter-by-stealth, but are promising to look into what happened. ®

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