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Website blocks fall into place as draft bill gets opposition support

Site-blocking laws are one step closer in Australia after a joint Parliamentary committee recommended Government pass the legislation -- though not without amendments (and dissent from the Greens).

Image by Jaskirat Singh Bawa, CC BY-ND 2.0

Update, June 17 at 10:40 a.m AEST: The House of Representatives has now passed site-blocking legislation with support from the Coalition and Labor, opening the path to the Senate and the bill's passage into law.

A joint Parliamentary committee has voiced its support for website-blocking legislation, with both Labor and Liberal Senators recommending that the proposed anti-piracy measures be enacted into law.

The moves could mean that Australians may soon face a generic "landing page" when they attempt to access overseas websites such as Pirate Bay, rather than accessing copyright infringing content or information that might assist them on the path to pirating.

The Federal Government announced it would be pursuing site-blocking legislation in December 2014 (after a leaked Government paper revealed the news months earlier), and officially introduced the bill to Parliament in March this year. Since then, a joint Parliamentary committee has been conducting a review of the legislation, calling for public comment from key industry stakeholders.

The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill [PDF] allows rights holders to seek a court order requiring ISPs to block overseas websites that infringe copyright or 'facilitate' the infringement of copyright. If the court deems that this is the "primary purpose" of such websites, then ISPs will be required to take "reasonable steps to disable access."

In handing down its report, the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee made a number of recommendations to amend the bill. Chief among these was the recommendation that taking "reasonable steps" to disable access to a website may include posting a landing page that indicates the website has been blocked.

The committee also softened the language for courts, saying that they may take a number of factors into account when deciding to issue a site-blocking order -- including the flagrancy of copyright infringement and whether the operator of a website "demonstrates a disregard for copyright generally." However, the committee has advised that not all of these tests must be satisfied and that matters can be addressed on a "case-by-case basis."

The legislation doesn't explicitly address blocking VPNs, according to the report, but the committee has called on the Government to "clarify the status of VPNs" in the Explanatory Memorandum. Further, the committee says the bill sets a high bar on the "primary purpose" of a piracy website and that this "will effectively avoid inadvertent blocking" of websites not involved associated with copyright infringement.

As far as legal costs for the court order process, the legal committee left it up to the courts to decide, but recommended that the Government "reassure" ISPs that "costs associated with site-blocking will primarily be borne by those parties who are seeking the remedy" (that is, the rights holders).

Political and industry response

Telecommunications industry body Communications Alliance has called on the Government to clarify site-blocking costs, with CEO John Stanton saying, "this core commitment by Government -- which is important to minimise the costs on internet consumers -- 'went missing'" in the draft bill.

Furthermore, While the Australian Greens were represented on the six-chair committee that handed down the report and recommended the laws be passed, the party was scathing in its commentary.

In a "dissenting report" appended to the official report released today, Greens Co-Deputy Leader Scott Ludlam said the bill "is the latest in a long line of misguided attempts by the government to monitor, control and censor the Internet" and recommended that the laws not be passed.

These comments echoed the views of public groups that slammed the bill, including the Electronic Frontiers Foundation which said it "runs against the Internet's essential value as an open platform for free expression," and Senate micro-party The Pirate Party, which called it a "legislative band-aid."

However, site-blocking has also received strong support from the industry, most notably from film studio Village Roadshow. The company's submission to the committee said "pirate sites are a sleazy neighbourhood which our children go to and they are selling hard-core pornography and scams such as party pills and steroids," and site blocking would help put an end to the "damning" effects of piracy.