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'Censorship by internet filter': Industry reacts to proposed piracy laws

As content distributors and ISPs tentatively welcome proposed anti-piracy regulations, consumer groups and IP experts have slammed the changes as a form of "internet filter"

Image by Jaskirat Singh Bawa, CC BY-ND 2.0

Government plans to introduce site-blocking laws and industry regulation to curb piracy have been cautiously welcomed by ISPs and content distributors; however, the moves have been met with swift criticism from consumer advocates.

After Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull announced the measures, including the introduction of legislation allowing rights holders to seek a court order requiring ISPs to block 'illegal' filesharing websites, Foxtel said it welcomed the move.

"First, it gives us tools to deal with the operators of pirate sites," said Foxtel CEO Richard Freudenstein. "The people who run pirate sites are criminals who steal content from creators and profit from their theft.

"Secondly, it will allow us to reach out to people who download illegitimate content to educate them that what they are doing is wrong and that there are many legal options they could take."

Communications Alliance, the industry body representing ISPs including iiNet, Optus and Telstra, also came out in support of the "balanced approach" taken by the Government in addressing the issue, including its calls for rights holders and ISPs to develop a code to crack down on piracy with provisions for a warning notice scheme for those found infringing copyright.

Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said ISPs had shown provisional support for a infringement notice scheme, but that enforcing rights holders' copyright should not be up to ISPs.

"The Code will not include any sanctions to be imposed by ISPs on their customers -- we believe that the copyright holders are the appropriate party to take any enforcement action against persistent infringers," he said.

"But we are optimistic that the sending of notices by ISPs to consumers whose service has apparently been used for improper file-sharing, will be a powerful signal."

However, Communications Alliance has also called for safeguards related to site blocking -- which it called "a relatively blunt instrument" with its share of weaknesses -- to ensure blocking does not lead to censorship.

Censorship by "internet filter"

Despite these calls and the Communications Minister's insistence that site blocking is not tantamount to filtering the internet, the Government's proposed measures have come under fire from consumer groups.

"Website blocking is censorship, plain and simple," said Pirate Party President Brendan Molloy. "It has always been suspected that file-sharing would be captured by filtering at some stage. Now the Coalition has dropped all pretence and introduced a form of filtering purely to protect old media from the Internet."

Consumer group Choice has also raised a number of concerns about the new industry code and site-blocking legislation, saying it will "[open] the way for the content industry to target consumers with disproportionate penalties" and it would create "an industry-run internet filter to block 'offending' websites".

The group says the Government's proposed measures will raise costs for all internet users when piracy could be more effectively tackled by ensuring broader availability of reasonably-priced content.

Associate Professor at the ANU College of Law and intellectual property law expert Dr Matthew Rimmer also said the new suite of reforms are highly controversial and amount to a "local version of SOPA" -- the US Government's Stop Online Piracy Act.

"Copyright owners will be full of christmas joy and cheer," he said. "George Brandis and Malcolm Turnbull have delivered political supports and donors Roadshow, Foxtel, and News Corp. with a comprehensive package of copyright measures designed to boost their rights and powers.

"The Australian Government has not explained what safeguards and protections that will be in the bill. Malcolm Turnbull has been super-sensitive to well-founded criticisms that the scheme amounts to an internet filter."

As far as costs are concerned, Dr Rimmer warned that "there will be much debate over whether the new scheme will constitute an Internet Tax". However, consumers may have little choice in the matter as "the Australian Government has given an ultimatum to internet service providers to co-operate with copyright owners or else."

Dr Rimmer said the scheme could lead to unnecessary restrictions on groups as varied as local libraries up to Google, and that it "will enhance the private power of copyright owners on the Internet" while leaving Australian consumers as "third-class citizens in the digital economy".