Shortly after the publishing of this article, Fraser decided not to attend tomorrow's meeting. For the latest on this story see this article.
Questions have been raised over the decision to include staunch copyright advocate, and chairman of the Australian Copyright Council (ACC), Professor Michael Fraser as a consumer representative in the latest round of Australian piracy negotiations.
(BitTorrent Download image by nrkbeta, CC BY-SA 2.0)
The controversy started after it was revealed that the government-funded Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) was going to be included in the latest of a series of meetings convened by the Attorney-General's Department. The meetings are looking into reducing online copyright infringement. ACCAN has said that Jonathan Gadir, senior policy advisor for the group, a former ABC producer and a casual lecturer at UTS, will be the lone representative for ACCAN at the meeting. However, the Attorney-General's Department said that ACCAN's chairman, Professor Michael Fraser, will also attend the meeting representing ACCAN.
So far, the closed-door meetings that began in September have only included internet service providers like iiNet, Telstra and Optus, and content lobby groups, such as the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft. Despite there being consumer advocacy groups interested in the meetings, the Attorney-General's Department had stated that it was too early for consumers to be brought in.
Fraser's impartiality has been called into question, as he has previously advocated for strong measures to protect copyright. He was the founder and CEO of the Copyright Agency Limited, a not-for-profit organisation that ensures content owners are paid for their work. He was also appointed as the chairman of the ACC in May, of which he had been a director of since 2001.
In his role as the director of the Centre for Communications Law at the University of Technology, Sydney, Fraser has frequently appeared on ABC TV as an expert on copyright law. In January, he appeared on ABC News 24 defending the US government's controversial anti-piracy legislation that are commonly known as SOPA and PIPA, stating that internet companies, like Wikipedia, that went dark in protest of the legislation, stood to profit from piracy.
Given Fraser's conflict of interest in representing consumers and his history in copyright advocacy, the Australian branch of the Pirate Party has written an open letter to the Attorney-General's Department, questioning ACCAN's role as a consumer advocate at the meetings.
"Whilst including ACCAN as the consumer representative is a step in the right direction in addressing concerns that consumers will be represented, we can't help but feel that they are a poor choice," Frew said. "Their chairperson is Michael Fraser, who has also just been named chairperson of the Australian Copyright Council. He is not a representative of consumer interests and it is hard to see [that] an organisation that he leads will be an impartial and fair advocate for consumers."
It is understood that ACCAN held a board meeting today where Fraser's potential conflict of interest was discussed, but no decision has been made at this time.
ZDNet Australia put questions to Fraser, on whether his attendance at the meetings represented a conflict of interest, however no response had been received at the time of writing.
He told New Matilda that, while he saw copyright to be essential, he also recognised that there were problems for consumers under the current system in Australia.
"While we're in favour of lawful access, there are a lot of shortcomings in the access to copyright works that need to be addressed. Whether you look at it from the consumers' point of view, or the copyright industry's, the market is not working effectively and sitting around a table to work out a solution is the way forward."
Internet advocacy group Electronic Frontiers Australia [EFA] told ZDNet Australia that it has attempted to be included in the meetings for several months, and made its position known to the Attorney-General's Department a number of times. Following yesterday's revelation that the meetings were on for this Thursday, EFA executive officer Jon Lawrence has been attempting to contact the department to attend tomorrow's meeting, but has yet to hear a response.
The EFA's spokesperson Kimberly Heitman said that the group was concerned that consumers would only get a say when the policy is fait accompli.
"Civil society only gets an input once the industry has decided on the policy," he said.
The Attorney-General's Department declined Pirate Party Australia's request to attend the meeting, stating that several consumer representative bodies will be present.
The Attorney-General's department provided the following list to ZDNet Australia, of attendees for tomorrow's meeting:
ACCAN and ISOC-AU are representing consumers, while DEAA and ACIG are representing content owners and IIA and the Communications Alliance represents the ISPs.