Australian government may have taken more than a thousand sites offline

MORE than 1200 websites, including one belonging to independent learning organisation Melbourne Free University, may have been blocked by the Australian government.

MFU was told by its ISP, Exetel, that the IP address hosting its website was blocked recently ‘‘by Australian authorities for undisclosed reasons’’. The block began on April 4 and was lifted on April 12.

UPDATE: ASIC admits to Melbourne Free University block.

Exetel also told MFU that “our supplier [AAPT] is unable to have this IP unblocked”.

MFU was established by a group of La Trobe University staff in 2010 as a free, independent university. Its courses cover politics, philosophy, theology, gender studies and economics. 

MFU co-founder Jasmine-Kim Westendorf said she did not know why the site was blocked and believed the government was most likely targeting another website sharing the same IP address.

The IP address that hosts melbournefreeuniversity.org also hosts gambling and pornography websites, which is not uncommon as one IP address can host thousands of websites from all over the world. More than 1200 other sites at the IP address were also blocked.

MFU recruited the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a non-profit group that investigates issues of free speech online, to investigate the block. The EFF agreed the site appeared to be blocked as a result of an order from the Australian government.

‘‘We didn’t know they had that power,’’ Westendorf said, ‘‘and it’s an issue for us that the government has these powers and aren’t accountable; there’s no transparency and no recourse. We don’t know who put this block on us. We haven’t been given any way of protesting or querying it or responding to it.’’

The Australian Communications and Media Authority, the body responsible for internet regulation, issued a statement denying it had blocked the site or that it was investigating any prohibited content. ACMA would not elaborate on this statement when contacted by MTW.

The site was unblocked on Friday amid mounting pressure on social media and following the EFF investigation. MFU has received no information from the government or its ISP as to why the block was put in place.

‘‘MFU has done nothing illegal, everything on our site belongs to us, there’s no copyright issues, there’s no issues around our name or what we’re doing.’’ Westendorf said.

The federal government’s proposed mandatory internet filter legislation was dropped in November last year amid concerns about free speech and that it would be an ineffective filtering tool. Communications minister Stephen Conroy said at the time that the government could still implement the filter via ISPs that voluntarily agreed to adopt it and that the government could still pursue the policy through existing legislation.

Telstra, Optus and Vodafone agreed to adopt the filter, while iiNet and Internode were staunchly opposed to it. Telstra, Optus and Vodafone customers were unable to access MFU’s website while it was blocked.

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