The Australian Senate voted yesterday in favour of a controversial piece of legislation that allows copyright holders to apply to a court to block piracy websites. The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 gives companies the right to seek out a federal judge to block websites from overseas that they believe are practising copyright infringement as a primary mode of business.
The bill was first introduced into parliament in March by Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull as an amendment of the Copyright Act. The amended act allows copyright holders to apply for torrent websites like The Pirate Bay and others to be blocked.
Despite the initial unpopularity of the bill, a turning point was reached earlier this month when a Labour committee reviewed the amended legislation and sided with the Coalition. Following the committee, MPs recommended the introduction of a landing page for blocked sites and a review of the bill’s effectiveness after two years, minor changes which were later enacted by the Coalition.
The legislation saw fierce opposition internally from the Australian Greens and from senators Glen Lazarus, Ricky Muir and David Leyonhjelm, as well as externally from telecommunication companies and consumer and civil rights groups.
Despite the opposition, 37 Labour and Coalition MPs voted in favour of the legislation while 13 Green Party MPs voted against what Greens Senator Scott Ludlam called Australia’s “second internet filter,” behind the section 313 legislation that allows law enforcement agencies to block websites in order to deter illegal online behavior.
The Greens suggested a number of amendments to the bill, including sections concerning VPNs, geoblocking, and the inclusion of a third party during court proceedings, all of which were rejected. When addressing the Senate, Ludlam said that “The distribution model where you could sit on your 20th century distribution bottleneck and put a property up on screen, and then wait for two months to do the TV release, then wait another two months and release it on DVD — that model is broken.”
“The only effective way to deal with copyright infringement on the kind of the scale the government is concerned about is to just make [content] available conveniently, affordably and in a timely way”.
Ludlam also said that the driving forces behind the bill were the “foreign rights holders and lobbyists who have collectively donated millions of dollars to the Liberal and Labor parties,” which leaves little room for the government’s argument that anti-piracy legislation will protect jobs in Australia.
The bill has also faced sharp criticism from several sources outside of government. Dr Matthew Rimmer, an associate professor at the Australian National University College of Law, called the bill “quite radical,” saying that “It’s a very dark day for the internet in Australia because there’s been bipartisan support for this Luddite censorship bill”.
Rimmer’s main concern is that the bill lacks adequate definitions for the “primary purpose” of alleged piracy websites and the “facilitation” of such sites during the act of piracy. According to Rimmer, these ambiguities could lead to “collateral damage,” whereby websites that have not breached copyright are blocked. This could put legitimate file-sharing websites such as dropbox.com and mega.co.nz in the firing line.
Other critics argue that the new legislation will be ineffectual because users in Australia will resort to web proxies and VPNs to avoid any blocks that are imposed. This has prompted fears that the government will legislate against VPN providers, though Turnbull has insisted that this won’t happen. Last week, Turnbull said that “VPNs have a wide range of legitimate purposes, not least of which is the preservation of privacy—something which every citizen is entitled to secure for themselves—and [VPN providers] have no oversight, control or influence over their customers’ activities.” If Turnbull honours his word, it seems likely that many Australians will turn to VPNs to circumvent the legislation.
Critics have suggested that the government cannot afford to enforce the legislation, though many believe that the telecommunications industry will have to foot the bill. According to government officials, ISPs will have to fork out approximately $130,000 a year.
ISPs are already facing hiked costs because of the mandatory data retention bill, which was introduced in March and requires large ISPs to retain the non-content data of all customers for a two-year period to help law enforcement agencies in criminal investigations. To establish the bill, ISPs are expecting to pay from $188.8 million to $319.1 million, as well as roughly $4 per customer per year for maintenance.
With the incremental financial burden faced by ISPs and tech companies, the government has pledged $131 million over a three year period, though this amount would leave a considerable deficit that would have been covered by the industry.
On top of these concerns, telecom and tech companies have been forced by the government to implement a copyright code, designed to tackle alleged copyright infringement, after they were given a four month ultimatum by the government to reinforce their anti-piracy stance.
The code applies to all ISPs that provide residential fixed internet services to more than 1000 customers. The code also requires ISPs to implement an escalating notice for users who have allegedly infringed upon the copyright of content holders.
If you reside in the land down under and are concerned by the introduction of this highly envasive and restrictive legislation, take a look at our guide to recommended VPN services for Australia.