No harsh penalties for Aussie downloaders
Australians will be blocked from accessing popular overseas websites hosting pirated movies and TV shows but would escape punishment for downloading illicit content under copyright law proposals being presented to federal cabinet on Tuesday.
Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull have developed a minimalist set of reforms to be debated at the final cabinet meeting of the year that avoids harsh penalties such as throttled speeds for repeat illicit downloaders.
If approved, the changes will disappoint rights holders who had been lobbying for tougher legislative action.
Fairfax Media understands the ministers' joint submission argues that internet providers and rights holders should work together on a code registered with the communications regulator, the Australian Communications and Media Authority. This code would include a scheme in which repeat illicit downloaders are warned via written notices that they are breaching copyright.
The government would retain the option of using the "big stick" of legislative change at a later date if internet providers and rights holders cannot agree on such a scheme.
Past negotiations on a voluntary code have broken down over the question of who would pay. Internet providers have been pushing for costs to be paid for by rights holders, while copyright owners like Village Roadshow are pushing for a 50-50 split.
The government's discussion paper on copyright infringement, released in late July, proposed creating a new legal framework, known as extended authorisation liability, to make internet companies more liable for their customers' illicit downloading. Mr Turnbull admitted in September that the proposal, as outlined in the discussion paper, had drawn unanimous opposition from all sides of the debate as too broad.
Cabinet will be asked to approve the creation of a mechanism allowing rights holders to seek a court injunction ordering internet providers to block overseas websites such as Pirate Bay providing access to illicit material.
While the blocks would stop most people accessing illicit material, they are unlikely to stop tech-savvy Australians who use virtual private network (VPN) software to bypass them.
In a submission to government, peak telecommunications industry body Communications Alliance backed a site-blocking scheme with appropriate safeguards despite the risk of "collateral damage". Legitimate sites could inadvertently be blocked and blocked sites may quickly reappear at a new address, the submission said.
Most telecommunications companies would welcome the light-touch approach outlined in the Cabinet submission but are concerned that determined lobbying by rights holders will sway the government to adopt a tougher approach. Since 1998, Village Roadshow, a strong advocate of an online copyright crackdown, has donated almost A$4 million to the Labor and Liberal parties.
Shadow attorney-general Mark Dreyfus has yet to announce Labor's position on online copyright infringement. In a recent interview with Fairfax, Dreyfus said he believed something needed to be done.
"I think we need to look at practical measures of which there is some evidence of them working somewhere in the world," he said. "The government should look to do what it can to assist in what is a real problem.
"We have a very high rate of internet piracy in Australia, particular in film and TV product. At the same time – and Malcolm Turnbull himself has commented on this – I think we need to see more being done to make content more readily and more cheaply available. That's not something the government can be responsible for."
- Fairfax Media Australia