Is Australia's piracy crackdown doomed to fail?

ADAM TURNER
Last updated 17:31 05/05/2014

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Australian Attorney-General Senator George Brandis wants to weild a bigger stick, but can his government's piracy war be won?

After months of speculation, Federal cabinet will reportedly consider proposals as early as this week  to crack down on illegal downloads. Options on the table include issuing warnings to people who repeatedly download illegally, as well as forcing Australian Internet Service Providers to block file-sharing websites such as the Pirate Bay. It's hard to see these measures doing much to turn the tide of piracy in Australia.

The government's renewed war on piracy comes amid a revamp of Australian copyright law, although Attorney-General George Brandis seems more interested in protecting the interests of big business than actually bringing Australia's copyright laws into the digital age. Brandis baulked at the idea of US-style Fair Use copyright laws designed to grant extra rights to end users. Instead he wants to focus on protecting the rights of copyright holders via web filtering and legal threats.

Brandis has been laying on the anti-piracy rhetoric rather thick, as have people like Village Roadshow chief Graham Burke - who recently attacked Google for daring to suggest that online piracy is "primarily an availability and pricing problem" which won't be solved by harsh but ineffective regulation. Last year a Federal parliamentary committee actually urged Australians to bypass geo-blocking to escape the Australia tax on hardware and content, but Brandis still believes the answer to piracy is simply to wield a bigger stick.

Brandis has spoken of laws which "ultimately require ISPs to ‘take down’ websites hosting infringing content", but surely he realises how pointless this is considering that the bulk of piracy sites lay beyond Australia's jurisdiction. Blocking such sites is more feasible than trying to get them taken offline.

Of course blocking sites like the Pirate Bay is also a futile gesture, as bypassing government-imposed filtering is child's play thanks to the range of free and paid proxy servers which bypass filtering and Virtual Private Network services which mask your internet traffic from your Australian ISP. The government couldn't crack down on VPN usage without impacting on legitimate business users.

The Pirate Bay isn't the only BitTorrent search engine in the world, and the Great Firewall of Australia would have an impossible job on its hands trying to block them all – just ask foreign lawmakers who seem to have lost their battle against BitTorrent search engines. Of course the nature of peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent means that they can't be crippled because there's no central point to attack.

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BitTorrent is far from the only peer-to-peer file-sharing network popular with pirates. Along with peer-to-peer networks, Australians can also turn to Usenet, a wide range of MegaUpload-style file storage services and a vast number of direct streaming sites like Watchseries.It. History has shown that if you cut one head off two more will take its place – a lesson which often seems lost on lawmakers more interested in making noise than finding constructive solutions to problems.

The alternative to blocking piracy sites on the internet is to block people from using the internet using graduated response "three-strikes" laws. After a few warnings for illegal downloads you're slapped with a fine or perhaps even have your internet access cut. Copyright giants such as Village Roadshow lost their court battle with Australian ISP iiNet, but there's still room for the government for the government to step in and legislate.

Local copyright groups have shied away in the past from taking a hard line and attacking pirates in their lounge rooms – a tactic which turned into a public relations disaster in the US. Back in 2008 the head of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft publicly admitted that the group has no interest in prosecuting file-sharers. Behind closed doors, they're reportedly still reluctant to go down the path of actually disconnecting people.

It remains to be seen how draconian Attorney-General Brandis' three-strikes proposals are, but they're unlikely to deter pirates when it's so simple to evade detection in the first place.

What do you think is more effective in combating piracy, the carrot or the stick?

Read more posts from Adam Turner's Gadgets on the Go blog.

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