An inept regulator exercising a hitherto-unused internet censorship power has been revealed as the source of the accidental blocking of a Melbourne education website.

IT industry news site Delimiter has revealed that Australian Securities and Investments Commission was behind the blocking of the Melbourne Free University website and more than 1000 other sites in early April when it sought to block a website suspected of engaging in fraud, using a power under s.313 of the Telecommunications Act.

The reason for the blocking of the site in April has remained a mystery, but Delimiter’s Renai LeMay pursued the issue and eventually unearthed from Broadband Minister Stephen Conroy’s office the fact that a broad power under the Telecommunications Act had been used.

Under s.313, a carrier or carriage service provider must:

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” … give officers and authorities of the Commonwealth and of the States and Territories such help as is reasonably necessary for the following purposes: enforcing the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties; assisting the enforcement of the criminal laws in force in a foreign country; protecting the public revenue; safeguarding national security.”

ASIC in effect used this power to censor the internet, in the course of which over 1000 sites unconnected to the target site were blocked, including Melbourne Free University, which was told nothing by authorities or its ISP about why.

ASIC is one of Australia’s most inept regulators, with a string of courtroom defeats marking its efforts to enforce corporate law. Despite its record of bumbling, last year ASIC used the Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security’s inquiry into data retention to demand an expansion of its power to intercept internet and phone communications.

ASIC’s use of the s.313 power opens the possibility of a de facto internet filter scheme with less oversight  than the filter originally proposed by Stephen Conroy in the government’s first term. As LeMay correctly notes, a filter comprised of individual requests from a variety of regulators asserting they are “enforcing criminal laws” or “safeguarding national security” is  harder to monitor or hold to account. As Melbourne Free University discovered, it is also very difficult for businesses and organisations accidentally blocked to discover who has blocked them or why.

In Tuesday’s budget, the government announced its abandonment of the internet filter scheme would enable a saving of several million dollars. It has been replaced with a “voluntary” filter scheme limited to sites identified by Interpol. That filter is a minimal one compared with both to the original Conroy proposal, which would have targeted a broader range of allegedly “illegal” content under Australian laws, and the one available via s.313, which is driven purely by the internal interpretations by regulators of what is “enforcing criminal law” or “safeguarding national security”.

However, all are easily evaded using virtual private networks or routing software like Tor. The safest bet for all Australian internet users is to use basic, freely available software to encrypt and redirect their internet usage to avoid filters and data retention regimes.