Attorney-General's Department censors public view on piracy

The public's view on the Australian government's plans to crack down on online piracy is being censored by the Attorney-General's Department.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

The Attorney-General's Department is withholding the release of approximately 630 submissions made to the Australian government's online copyright discussion paper under Freedom of Information (FOI).

In July, the government released a discussion paper looking to address the high number of Australians illicitly downloading TV shows, films, and music online through potential legislative changes and a "graduated response" scheme of warning customers who are alleged to have repeatedly infringed on a rights holder's copyright.

At the time, the government indicated that it would publish all submissions received, unless those making submissions requested them to be made private. Since then, the department has published dozens of submissions from lobby groups, companies, academics, and other organisations, but no individual submissions from members of the public.

ZDNet asked the Attorney-General's Department last month whether it intended on releasing the submissions, and was informed that due to the department receiving over 630 submissions from the public, meeting web-accessibility guidelines mandated by the Commonwealth government for uploaded documents would not be possible. As such, it said that none of the public submissions would be made public.

The guidelines call for government agencies to avoid using PDF documents where the document is a scan of a print-out; however, a good portion of the submissions received from the public would have been made online, and in a readable format.

The agency uses similar reasoning for not publishing disclosure log documents from Freedom of Information requests.

The department had also promised to provide a copy of the documents to ZDNet, but has since failed to respond to repeated follow-up emails seeking to obtain the submissions.

A Freedom of Information request for the submissions was filed last month, and the department had initially indicated that it would release the submissions edited with personal details removed outside the FOI process on October 10, with a view to have the documents sent out on CD in two weeks.

Over two weeks later, no submissions have been released, and the department has failed to respond to further emails requesting the release of the submissions.

On October 16, the department then announced that it intended to refuse access to the documents under Freedom of Information, because it would take 81 hours to process the request for all 630 submissions.

"At the time of lodging a submission, those interested in doing so were able to specify whether they agreed to their submission being published, and agreed to it being published but with their name removed, or did not agree to the submission being published," the letter stated.

"Based on the estimated time required to process your request and the large number of documents containing personal information of individuals, many of whom have not consented to its disclosure, I am satisfied that processing your request would be a substantial and unreasonable diversion of the department's resources."

The letter stated that outside the FOI process, a "computer disc" with the submissions would likely be available in "late October".

In lieu of the department making submissions public, Electronic Frontiers Australia has begun hosting public submissions to the discussion paper on its website.

The department has not responded to requests for comment from ZDNet. The Australian Government Information Management Office (AGIMO), which has oversight for meeting accessibility guidelines, had not provided a response at the time of writing.

The Attorney-General's Department also initially resisted releasing public submissions to the government's ultimately abandoned plans to make changes to the Racial Discrimination Act, before releasing them under FOI last month.

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