Piracy site-block expansion to search engines passes Parliament

It will be easier to block mirror sites under the amendment, with online search engines also now included.

Australia's Parliament has passed the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2018, with the federal government saying it will enable rights holders to better fight copyright infringement.

The Australian government introduced the new legislation in October, proposing to expand piracy site-block laws from carriage service providers to online search engine providers.

The Bill will also allow faster blocks of mirror sites, reduce the burden of proving that a site is hosted outside of Australia, and expand the legislation to sites that not only have the "primary purpose", but also to those that have the "primary effect" of infringing copyright.

"The government has zero tolerance for online piracy. It is theft, and damaging to our creative economy and local creators. We are committed to protecting Australia's creative industries and the world-class content we produce every year," Communications Minister Mitch Fifield said.

"The passage of our legislation today sends a strong message to online pirates that Australia does not tolerate online theft."

The amendment -- which will be reviewed in two years -- follows a Senate committee earlier this week recommending it be passed as is, despite objections from global tech giants.

In a report published on Monday night, the Senate Environment and Communications Legislation Committee had said that while it "appreciates" concerns raised, it is of the view that there are enough safeguards in the Bill.

The committee also said legitimate online locations are unlikely to be captured by the legislation, and threw its weight behind the government's proposal to extend the site-block laws to search engines.

"A number of submitters asserted that it is unnecessary to extend the injunctive regime to online search engine providers. However, in light of the significant role that these providers may play in both the infringement and enforcement of copyright, the committee is of the view that the measure is appropriate," the report said.

The amendments allowing for rights holders to gain adaptive injunctions against mirror sites are also "appropriately circumscribed", according to the committee.

In additional comments, however, the Australian Greens party argued that "site blocking is not the most effective means of stopping piracy".

"Rather, copyright is better addressed by making the content available: Conveniently, affordably, and in a timely way. We have seen this to great effect with the popularity of Netflix in Australia and the impact on piracy," the Greens said.

"We acknowledge that whilst the Bill is intended to address gaps within the current scheme, unintended consequences of extending website-blocking practices are a concern that we hold, and would like to further explore to ensure that free speech and public discourse are not unduly affected."

Earlier this week, a group including Facebook and Twitter had told the committee that the proposed piracy site-block amendments "expand the scheme far beyond what is reasonable".

An individual submission published last week by Google had also said it strongly disagrees with the Bill, as it would remove Federal Court control over what websites are blocked and hand it instead to commercial entities.

The search engine giant pointed out that the government's own research has shown that piracy is decreasing every year, and that no other nation has extended site-blocking schemes to search engines.

According to Foxtel, the existing legislation has so far seen around 88 sites and 475 domains blocked, but said it "can be difficult" to prove that some online locations have the primary purpose of infringing locations, such as file-hosting services and cyberlockers.

The passage of the amendment comes despite the successful track record of the existing Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Act -- which passed both houses of Parliament in mid-2015 -- in blocking hundreds of torrenting and streaming websites in an increasingly speedy way, as well as its recent expansion to smart TV boxes and sites providing subtitle files.

Under the initial Federal Court ruling, rights holders are to pay a AU$50 fee per domain they want to block, with the websites to be blocked within 15 business days.

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