The Australian government will block domains that share extremist content – and it's just the beginning of the crackdown

New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern.
  • Prime Minister Scott Morrison has announced the federal government will give telcos and internet service providers the power to block domains found to be hosting violent content relating to terror attacks, as he attends the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France.
  • The announcement is part of the government’s nine point plan to prevent extremist content online developed in the wake of the terror attack in Christchurch, New Zealand in March.
  • Granting the government the power to block domains could be a slippery slope, with US non-profit The Internet Society warning that such measures are “generally inefficient, often ineffective” and could harm internet users.

The Australian government has announced it will allow internet services providers and telcos to block domains that promote “harmful and extreme” content.

The crackdown comes after the gunman who killed 51 people in Christchurch, New Zealand, live-streamed his rampage on Facebook Live. Following the massacre in Christchurch, the Australian government released a nine point plan on how it would prevent extremist content seeing the light of day.

On Sunday at the G7 Summit in France, Prime Minister Scott Morrison moved forward with one part of the plan: to give internet service providers and telcos including Telstra, Vodafone, TPG and Optus the ability to block domains that hosted violent content in relation to terror attacks.

“The shocking events that took place in Christchurch demonstrated how digital platforms and websites can be exploited to host extreme violent and terrorist content,” Morrison said in a statement.

“That type of abhorrent material has no place in Australia and we are doing everything we can to deny terrorists the opportunity to glorify their crimes, including taking action locally and globally.”

It is unclear if it will be the government or the service providers dictating the domains to be censored and which sites will be targeted.

Federal Communications Minister Paul Fletcher clarified to the Sydney Morning Herald the major social media platforms are not the target of the blocking tools. The tools would instead be used to help telcos block websites considered on the fringe of the internet, he said.

“Rather, the new blocking arrangements would give telcos the legal backing to address fringe websites that wilfully host abhorrent violent material and refuse to engage constructively with government,” a spokesman for Fletcher said.

The government didn’t clarify which domains would be the focus, but it’s likely 8chan, 4chan and Kiwi Farms will be in the firing line as they were blocked by Telstra, Optus and Vodafone during the Christchurch massacre for hosting the shooter’s livestream, Gizmodo reported.

Telstra and Vodafone said in statements to Business Insider Australia they are working in collaboration with the government. Business Insider Australia has reached out to Optus for comment.

“We support every effort to make the internet and society a safer place for everyone. We have been actively involved in the taskforce, working with Communications Alliance and the eSafety Commissioner to develop practices and processes that will help us manage abhorrent violent material if it appears online in the future,” a spokesperson said.

“Immediately after the attacks in Christchurch Vodafone, in consultation with government, began blocking sites known to be hosting offensive content related to the attacks,” a Vodafone spokesperson said. “We continue to be engaged with relevant federal agencies regarding website blocks.”

The government continues to work with Facebook, YouTube, Amazon, Microsoft and Twitter on implementing stricter guidelines to monitor and remove extreme content from their platforms. Recommendations from the tech companies are due to the government by September and the government warned in its statement that if they fail to do so, legislative measures will be used.

Facebook has declined to comment, due to Fletcher’s clarification that the blocking will not affect the platform directly.

The statement noted there would be a 24/7 monitoring centre, which will notify the government of “crisis events” and allow the eSafety commissioner Julie Inman Grant to make a quick judgement call.

“Any such power will be exercised with great discretion and will target those sites that are not actively cooperating or removing the content,” Inman Grant told the Sydney Morning Herald.

Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton said in a statement the tools would allow the government to move quickly.

“This new protocol will better equip our agencies to rapidly detect and shut down the sharing of dangerous material online, even as a crisis may still be unfolding,” he said.

It could be slippery slope allowing the government and internet service providers the ability to block internet domains.

The Internet Society, a US non-profit organisation that handles internet standards and is backed by large technology companies, released a technical study in 2017 advising the use of internet blocking to address content issues is problematic.

“…using Internet blocking to address illegal content or activities is generally inefficient, often ineffective and generally causes unintended damages to Internet users,” the study found.

“From a technical point of view, we recommend that policy makers think twice when considering the use of Internet blocking tools to solve public policy issues. If they do and choose to pursue alternative approaches, this will be an important win for a global, open, interoperable and trusted internet.”

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