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Labor waves piracy site-blocking Bill through Australian Senate, despite concerns

Labor has ensured the government's website-blocking Bill has passed both houses of the Australian parliament.
Written by Josh Taylor, Contributor

Access to sites like the Pirate Bay will be limited, after Labor fell into line with the government to pass legislation to force internet service providers to block websites linking to copyright-infringing content.

The legislation will allow rights holders to obtain court orders to block overseas websites, such as The Pirate Bay, that are found to contain copyright infringing material, or facilitate access to copyright infringing material.

The legislation passed the Senate 37 votes to 13, with the support of the Labor opposition, which only proposed one amendment: To call on the government to respond to the 2013 Australian Law Reform Commission report calling for fair use to be introduced into Australian Copyright Law.

Labor and the Coalition teamed up to vote down a series of amendments from Greens communications spokesperson Scott Ludlam that would have delayed the Bill until the government had responded to the ALRC report, as well as the IT pricing inquiry report.

Ludlam was also unsuccessful in moving amendments that would have narrowed the scope of the legislation, and completely ruled out blocking VPN services.

Labor Senator Jacinta Collins said the legislation was designed for the "worst of the worst" piracy sites, and that VPN services would not be targeted because it was prevented through an amendment to the Explanatory Memorandum of the legislation.

Ludlam also sought to allow third parties to join cases to argue against sites being blocked. This amendment was opposed by Labor and the government. The government said the Federal Court was capable of balancing public interest, and taking public interests into consideration, but indicated specific third parties, such as Choice, may be allowed to join cases through regulation.

The Bill had the backing of rights holders, but was criticised by internet service providers, Google, consumer groups and other organisations for its wide scope, and potential to limit access to legitimate content.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission warned that film and TV companies could potentially threaten to block access to geoblocked services such as HBO Now.

In the House of Representatives last week, Turnbull said this issue could be worked out between rights holders.

"Where someone is using a VPN to access, for example, Netflix from the United States to get content in respect of which Netflix does not have an Australian licence, this Bill would not deal with that," he said.

"If Australian rights owners have got issues about American sites selling content to Australians in respect of which they do not have Australian rights, they should take it up with them.

"The big boys can sort it out between themselves and leave the consumers out of it."

The parliament had just three months to consider the legislation, and the Senate committee examining the legislation held just one hearing where one Labor senator and one Coalition senator attended.

The legislation does not indicate whether ISPs will bear the costs for blocking websites. Collins said that the government had initially indicated rights holders would bear the costs, and said she hoped the government would outline the cost-recovery model.

"The Bill before the parliament is silent on this point, and I look forward to the government's consideration on this issue," she said.

Liberal Democrat Senator David Leyonhjelm also opposed the legislation, stating it was a bad law, and threatened freedom of speech, and freedom of access to information.

Ludlam said the legislation was a win for rights holders, who he said will decide what is blocked by ISPs.

"They've found a pushover of an attorney-general and an opposition that is too weak to take up the fight," he said.

Despite Labor's support of the legislation, the Labor MP responsible for the IT pricing inquiry -- Ed Husic -- voiced his objections to the legislation after it had passed the House of Representatives.

"I consider that that bill reflects an ethos that tries to limit the liberalising force of the internet to the extent that it tries to skew benefit to producers, rights holders and certain entrenched interests at the expense of others," he said.

"On the surface, it aims to tackle piracy; you cannot argue with that. But, in the wider context, it demonstrates an absence of commitment by this government to having a coherent approach to dealing with piracy. To paraphrase an expression, it is tough on piracy and not on the causes of piracy."

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