Based in Adelaide, Australia, Empire Times is the student publication of Flinders University. It covers campus news and provides a platform for emerging student talent.

Australian ISP Overstep in the Wake of New Zealand’s Massacre

Australian ISP Overstep in the Wake of New Zealand’s Massacre

What are the boundaries of censorship in the wake of devastating events? An exploration of Government power and technological ethics.

In the wake of the Christchurch Massacre, three of the largest Australian Internet Service Providers (ISPs) began to block websites which were supposedly holding the manifesto of the shooter and videos of the attacks. What was unprecedented was that this censorship was carried out by the ISP’s themselves and did not follow the normal government regulatory process, which is to block content as identified by the Australian Communication and Media Authority (ACMA)  the government body in charge of censoring content. Neither were requests made to the eSafety commissioner, who has the powers to block Australian hosted content, nor had they received directives from other regulatory agencies (such as the Federal Police).

While the NZ and Australian government made statements about the sharing and viewing of the materials, there was no specific government response in regards to the blocking of websites themselves in Australia. Users in New Zealand were arrested in relation to comments and the sharing of posts on social media under criminal law. although it does seem that the initiative was taken first by ISPs then were given the permission to block websites based on government authority.

In fact, the blocking of content in Australia was only discovered by users themselves  it was only confirmed later by two of the three big ISPs. Vodafone responded to users on twitter, whereas Telstra responded on twitter alongside a formal post on their website. Optus the other large Australian ISP did not make any formal comments on their website or social media but did report to the media in two contradictory statements. It does not appear that these decisions were made with any collaboration with the government nor much initial collaboration within themselves.

The other big Australian ISP, TPG (also owner of iiNet), did not censor content and it does not seem that any smaller ISPs made similar decisions. One small ISP made the comment that “As a smaller ISP, our view to date has been that the decision on blocking belongs to a court of law, which we feel is more qualified to determine what should be blocked and what should not."

Justification for censoring these websites (which can also be found in the above links) can be summarised as being done to prevent harmful content, feeding copycat terrorism by white extremists and to meet community expectations. While this is logically sound there are some major issues with such conduct by the ISPs.

Firstly, the process was not transparent and communicated to users and website. While websites such as 4Chan and 8Chan, had subforums that were glorifying and encouraging this massacre (the shooter advertised his livestream on 8chan); the other websites, namely liveleaks and zerohedge, had made statements  and policies forbidding the content from being shared.

Some of the other websites blocked included storage website Mega and archival websites. The full list has not been confirmed by the ISPS and the ban has ended as time of writing. The websites were never officially informed of the blocking and were unable to communicate with the ISPs to dispute blocking. This raises a serious issue regarding transparency and fairness. In contrast, the  rampage was livestreamed on Facebook  and while it was brought down immediately upon discovery, it had already been streamed in its entirety and was the original source for other copies of the footage. Thus despite its  primary role in this series of disgusting events and its continued usage by trolls and extremists  Facebook was not considered a site  that was necessary to block in any way or form. In addition, the ACMA admitted that in regards to actual news channels and their accompanying websites, preventing media from being shown was “currently beyond its regulatory remit.”

Secondly, it was subjective in its gatekeeping. Since the role of a business is to seek the maximum levels of return on its investment and ensure its own survivability, this naturally involves seeking and making use of any advantage it can get over its competition. It is in a business’s interests to ensure that events true or not do not reflect badly on itself thereby harming its income. This can lead to a distortion of what is truthful whether it is in regards to their competitors or events that impact on society.

Of significance to this is the fact that Telstra, Australia’s premiere telecommunications company banned Liveleak (a competitor in that it contains citizen journalism), a site that in response to the attack officially released a statement that denounced the attack as well as signalled both their refusal to host as well as intention to remove any videos of the shootings uploaded to their site by users, which they have demonstrated. This is in stark contrast to Telstra’s own actions regarding the footage. Sky News Australia, a News Corp subsidiary channel shown on Foxtel, a cable television company that Telstra jointly owns, deliberately showcased the killer’s footage leading to the local Sky New Zealand taking their Australian counterpart off their platform.

Thirdly, the reality was that the websites censorship was not particularly effective and can easily be bypassed. Since the denial of access was based on DNS (Domain Name System) blocking, many users running a VPN were unaffected. Furthermore, it would have been easy for users to find alternative websites and ways to transmit the information, and as has been shown Facebook and Youtube still remained the largest platforms for sharing of the video.

Lastly, these actions set a dangerous precedent to freedom of information and due process. In an age where the internet is increasingly regarded as a human right, but also an opportunity to control and dictate narratives by certain actors, there is a strong need for maintaining accurate information and transparency; the actions of these ISP’s signal a dangerous potential. By not following government and legal process, the ISPs have become the arbiters of what can and cannot be accessed, especially in a non-transparent and non-communicated way.

While democratic nations take pains to make public note of the control of internet by countries such as the People’s Republic of China and the Russian Federation, it is hypocritical and dangerous to also allow such actions by private companies in democracies. This essentially allows for the usurpation of a role traditionally taken by the government or the influence of activism of political lobbyists and parties, one that is meant to be democratic and representative rather than at the whim of private interest groups. They are also denying people agency to denounce such events themselves in the name of preventing the criminal. In a participatory democracy elected representatives rather than private interests are meant to be the ones who are entrusted with the right to make decisions in accordance with the will of their citizens.

This issue has shown that there is a lack of control and foresight by governments and one that is increasingly important to justify the removal and blocking of content for the safety of society. As the internet and media on it plays a more important role in the distribution and consumption of news and opinion

In the days after the massacre, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, invited ISPs to a meeting that was already scheduled for this week, in regards to the role of social networks and censoring content such as the video from Christchurch. What form this discussion takes is unknown but ideally the government should ensure that from an ISP level, jurisprudence takes priority when it comes to any form of censorship. That content should be removed, isn’t the issue, but the authority and process to do so is of great concern.

It is important to note that the federal authorities also must ensure a fair and transparent system from their side as well, as this has been an issue before with such incidents as government poorly defining blocking resulting in over 250,000 websites being unfairly blocked. It is also important that the government also plays a stronger role in regulating and ensuring large online multinationals such as Google and Facebook are held to account for the spread of extremism and misinformation.

In conclusion, this episode while understandable and likely well intentioned, shows an overstep by Australian ISPs. This is of concern as it could lead to a range of issues namely the emergence of non-transparent filtering, the use of activism and lobbyists to push for websites blocking and a possible move by ISPs to block content that is unfavourable to their interests. This is of great concern as this could lead to erosion of legal process and heavy partiality, both threats to democracy.

The Australian government also has shown a not atypical lack of understanding of both technologies’ role in the democratic process as well as its obligations to its people as a democratically functioning body. Allowing private corporate interests to set the tone of the conversation during a time when the government cannot afford to lag in its engagement both with and on behalf of all its citizens in this globalised world.

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