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Site-blocking laws pass Parliament as critics slam 'internet filter'

In a win for rights holders, ISPs could soon be court ordered to block websites deemed to be 'facilitating piracy' after new site-blocking laws passed Parliament. But critics have slammed it as nothing more than an "internet filter."

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Australian Internet users could soon be met with dead ends across the web after controversial site-blocking laws passed Parliament late on Monday.

The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 [PDF] passed with bipartisan support in the Senate, after passing the lower house last week, with just a handful of cross-bench Senators standing up against laws that they said would introduce an "internet filter" to Australia.

The bill will allow copyright holders such as film studios and record labels to apply to the Federal Court for an injunction requiring all Australian ISPs to block overseas websites ("online locations") facilitating piracy.

Rights holders must satisfy the court that the "primary purpose" of a website is to facilitate copyright infringement. Further, the court can weigh up factors such as whether a site's operator has a "disregard" for copyright more generally, as well as the "flagrancy" of infringement that it allows.

The laws were the subject of heated debate in the Senate with Greens Senator Scott Ludlam and Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm leading the charge.

Senator Ludlam argued that "cashed-up donors and lobbyists," including rights holders and industry lobby groups, had managed to set the agenda on the "dangerous" bill, and that during the process Attorney-General George Brandis "had an open door to Village Roadshow and AFACT" [the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, now known as the Australian Screen Association].

He argued that the bill could make it commonplace for rights holders to seek large-scale blocking of websites, making so that in future "it becomes routine that sites simply disappear." Senator Ludlam also repeatedly grilled Liberal Senator Concetta Fierravanti-Wells on whether or not VPNs would be blocked under the laws, saying Senator Fierravanti-Wells' explanation was, "The parliamentary equivalent of Senator Brandis' train smash on Sky."

"Does anyone seriously believe that this scheme won't be expanded in the future to cover more categories of content? Of course it will. It has scope creep absolutely built into it. It is lazy, and it is dangerous," he said.

Senator Ludlam moved an amendment stating that the Government's "failure" to respond to the IT pricing enquiry meant the Senate was compromised in its ability to vote on the bill. This amendment was voted down.

The Greens Senator also brought nine amendments to the bill on behalf of the Greens, including moves to refine the definition of "online locations" to not include VPNs, changes to the Copyright Act "to explicitly state that evading geo-blocking does not constitute copyright infringement" as well as the definitions of 'facilitating' copyright to ensure legitimate websites aren't caught in the net. Senator Ludlam also sought to include provisions to allow third-party appeals of website blocks.

These amendments were all voted down.

Senator Ludlam was joined in his dissent by Liberal Democrat David Leyonhjelm who described the site-blocking legislation as "a drastic remedy and a blunt tool" with "inadequate protections" for everyday Internet users.

"The bill is vaguely drafted and...aims to protect rights holders at everyone else's expense, which is not how the rule of law is supposed to work," he said. "There is no oversight or indemnities to track or protect against over blocking or other technical issues."

Senator Leyonhjelm added that online sites and tools -- such as VPNs, cloud storage and URL shorteners -- could be mistakenly blocked. While Leyonhjelm supported Greens amendments, he said that without these changes, the bill represented "very bad law."