Government wants telcos to block overseas gambling websites

New scheme intended to block customers of Australia’s major ISPs from accessing overseas-based gambling services

The federal government has confirmed to Computerworld that it is assessing the feasibility of a filtering scheme that will see customers of major Internet service providers (ISPs) blocked from accessing overseas-based gambling services that are not licensed to operate in Australia.

The move is part of the government's response to the 2018 Black Economy Taskforce Final Paper as well as the 2015 Review of Illegal Offshore Wagering. Consultation is continuing and the government has not yet committed to the idea. A paper discussing the idea has been circulated to industry stakeholders but not been released publicly by the government.

The government hopes to achieve coverage of some three-quarters of Australian Internet users through the voluntary participation of the nation’s largest ISPs in the scheme, which is expected to be based on a new code registered with the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA).

Communications Alliance — an industry group that counts Australia’s biggest telecommunications providers among its members — has given the idea in-principle support.

The Interactive Gambling Act (IGA) bans the provision of overseas-based interactive gambling services to Australians. However, the act has been largely toothless.

Telcos are currently bound by the Interactive Gambling Industry Code, which was registered by the ACMA in late 2001.

The code was originally developed by the Internet Industry Association, but, after the IIA was shut down in 2014 due to its financial woes custodianship was transferred to Communications Alliance (along with a number of other industry codes including the spam code and the anti-botnet icode).

The ISP gambling code was established to meet the requirements of the Interactive Gambling Act 2001. Under the code, telcos are required to provide Internet subscribers with access to filtering software or services that enables households to block overseas-based gambling sites (based on a list maintained by the Australian Broadcasting Authority). Installation and use of the software is voluntary.

In response to the 2015 review of the impact of illegal offshore wagering, the government introduced the Interactive Gambling Amendment Act 2017, altering a number of provisions of the IGA (including introducing an ACMA-administered civil penalty regime).

The current iteration of the IGA bans the provision (and advertising) of certain “interactive gambling services” as well as unlicensed regulated interactive gambling services to Australians.

If the new scheme to block overseas gambling services is implemented, the government envisages that initially a system of ISP-delivered ‘pop-up’ warnings will be used to alert customers of prohibited gambling services that they will soon be blocked — giving them an opportunity to withdraw any funds held by a service.

However, telcos have warned the government that such a system may not be feasible for all ISPs to implement. Communications Alliance has told the government that customers of a service instead could contact the blocked service provider to request access to funds; if the gambling service refuses to comply then a pop-up system is likely to be of no use anyway, it argues.

Communications Alliance has also warned the government that not only can most website blocks be relatively easily evaded (through the use of a VPN or TOR, for example, or in the case of DNS-based blocking through merely changing network settings), but also that blocks run the risk of impinging on access to unrelated services unless they are carefully targeted (e.g. not using IP-based blocking).

Australia currently has two main regimes for blocking access to online services.

The first is Section 313(3) of the Telecommunications Act which obliges carrier and carriage service providers to “give officers and authorities of the Commonwealth and of the States and Territories such help as is reasonably necessary” to enforce “the criminal law and laws imposing pecuniary penalties,” assist “the enforcement of the criminal laws in force in a foreign country,” protect public revenue, or safeguard national security. A key use of the act has been to issue a notice requesting that an ISP block its subscribers from accessing a particular site or sites.

In 2012, the then-Labor government abandoned its half-decade quest to implement a mandatory Internet filtering scheme. Instead Labor said it would employ Section 313 of the Telecommunications Act to make Internet service providers block their customers from accessing sites hosting child abuse material. That collection of sites is based on Interpol’s ‘worst of’ list.

The Australian Federal Police through its Access Limitation Scheme has used Section 313 to issue notices to ISPs based on the Interpol list. Although historically that has been the AFP’s primary reason for employing Section 313, the law enforcement agency has also issued notices aimed at preventing the spread of banking malware.

Section 313 and its use was subject to a parliamentary inquiry after the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) issued a notice to telcos aimed at shutting down websites linked to fraud. Because ASIC requested a block based on the IP address associated with a website, thousands of websites were erroneously blocked.

In 2015, the inquiry released its report. It concluded that the government should not impose limits on the use of Section 313, but called for the release of guidelines on how agencies should employ the power. Those guidelines were finally released in mid-2017.

Communications Alliance has previously warned the government against expanding the use of Section 313 to target gambling sites.

Australia’s second major blocking scheme was implemented by 2015 legislation and is aimed at helping the private sector combat online copyright infringement. 

The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Act 2015 allows copyright holders to apply for a Federal Court injunction forcing a telecommunications provider (or providers) to take reasonable steps to block their customers from accessing targeted sites linked to piracy. So far injunctions have been implemented using DNS-based blocking.

The site-blocking regime can only be used to target overseas-based online services. It has been by major entertainment companies including Village Roadshow and Foxtel to obtain injunctions forcing Australia’s biggest telcos to block their customers from accessing hundreds of domains associated with copyright infringement, including some used to power illicit set-top box services.

(Currently before the Federal Court is the largest application, in terms of online services, lodged under the site-blocking amendments to copyright law.)

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Tags TelecommunicationscensorshipCommunications Allianceonline gamblingsection 313website blocking

More about AFPAustraliaAustralian Broadcasting AuthorityAustralian Communications and Media AuthorityAustralian Federal PoliceAustralian Securities and Investments CommissionCommunications AllianceFederal PoliceFoxtelIGAIIAInteractiveInternet Industry AssociationInterpolVillage Roadshow

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