Site-blocking legislation targeted at 'arrogant' Australian infringers

Rights holders and their advocates have argued that while the site-blocking legislation won't stop piracy, it will send a message to Australians illicitly downloading with 'arrogant impunity'.

Copyright holders and advocates have made the case that while site-blocking legislation will not stop piracy, it will go a long way towards deterring Australians from illicitly downloading TV shows, films, and music.

The Australian government introduced legislation in March that would allow rights holders to get an injunction placed on internet service providers (ISPs) to force telcos to block specific overseas piracy websites from access by Australian users.

The rights holders would need to demonstrate that the primary purpose of a website is for the infringement of copyright before the Federal Court will order ISPs to block it.

Some of the rights holders that had lobbied the government for the legislation made the case to a Senate committee on Friday as to why the legislation was required, but expressed concerns that the hurdles to obtain a court order may be too high.

APRA CEO Brett Cottle told the committee that for too long, Australians had been allowed to infringe on copyright with "arrogant impunity", because the government had not acted. Despite the availability of legal streaming music services, he said that torrents of popular music are still easily available on piracy websites.

Blocking these sites would go a long way towards helping Australian consumers find legitimate content, he said, but he admitted that it would not end copyright infringement in Australia.

"We know it isn't a complete solution to the problem. We know there is no silver bullet," he said.

Foxtel's director of corporate affairs Bruce Meagher agreed that there is no silver bullet, but combined with the infringement notice scheme and a massive education campaign to be undertaken by rights holders, he predicted that online copyright infringement would be reduced in Australia.

"We expect that the mere fact of receiving a notice will result in a drop off in activity," he said.

He said that very few lawsuits would be launched as a result of the notice scheme, with most customers stopping their infringement after receiving notices.

The availability of streaming video services like Presto, Stan, and Netflix would also have an impact, he said. However, he acknowledged that these services do not have everything consumers want yet.

"There's a journey we're on, and we're not there yet," he said.

Roadshow Co-CEO Christopher Chards said that based on the UK model of site blocking, it would not "break the internet", and despite users potentially bypassing the blocks by using virtual private network (VPN) services, he said there would be significantly fewer people than those accessing the sites today.

Google and consumer groups had raised concerns that the legislation could see VPN services blocked because they may "facilitate" copyright infringement. Australian Copyright Council executive director Fiona Phillips said VPN services that are not specifically marketed for the purpose of copyright infringement would not be blocked.

"That is not the object of this legislation. If I were to set up a VPN and call it 'Highway to the Pirate Bay', that should be subject to the same decision," she said.

Site-blocking legislation is 'horrible'

While the legislation was broadly welcomed by the rights holders, the Internet Society of Australia, the Communications Alliance, and the Australian Interactive Media Industry Association (AIMIA) expressed their reservations about the wider ramifications of the Bill.

Communications Alliance CEO John Stanton said he would welcome a working group for the legislation, similar to that on the data-retention legislation, but said ISPs are most concerned that costs for blocking sites, and the indemnity for ISPs, were not included in the legislation as promised.

Stanton also said it would be sensible for the Bill to be amended to ensure VPN services are excluded from being blocked.

AIMIA -- which represents global giants including Facebook, Google, and Twitter -- said in its submission that the Bill was a mistake, and representative Carolyn Dalton told the committee on Friday that the legislation was a "blunt measure" to stop online copyright infringement.

Rights holders are pushing to have the test of a site being "primarily" for the purpose of infringement to just "substantially". Dalton told the committee that this could lead to BitTorrent being blocked despite its many legitimate and legal uses.

"If you think of the BitTorrent protocol ... it is often used for copyright infringement ... it is also uses for legitimate content distribution. There is a lot of research capabilities that use BitTorrent," she said.

"BitTorrent could have some really nefarious purposes ... it also has an extremely socially useful purpose. BitTorrent has a substantial purpose for facilitating copyright infringement. Is it its primary purpose? No."

Internet Society of Australia CEO Laurie Patton said the site-blocking Bill is "a horrible piece of legislation with blunt consequences", and said that online copyright infringement could be better addressed by removing the barriers to accessing content in a timely and affordable manner.

"We believe that in negotiations over the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) agreement, Australia should insist on an end to geoblocking and a requirement as part of the new international trading arrangements being introduced that content supplied over the internet must be released at the same time, and at comparable prices across all TPP participating countries," he said.

"If this approach is taken, there will be no need for this legislation, which we contend will likely not achieve its stated aim, but will detract from the overall effectiveness of the internet to the disadvantage of all Australians."

The committee will hear evidence from consumer groups, the Law Council of Australia, the Institute of Public Affairs, and the Attorney-General's Department on Friday afternoon.

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