As Australia's Gov't Mulls Anti-Piracy Measures, ISPs Get a Let-Off

Australia’s government is inching closer to agreeing on its strategy for dealing with online piracy. 

During a rare week in which "piracy" became a heated topic in the mainstream press, the government released a discussion paper seeking views and input from the public, industry and from the media on the best path to travel for battling digital content theft. Ironically, the paper had been leaked days earlier.

Whether the government will follow the lead of its neighbor New Zealand with a “graduated response” system is still guess-work, but at this stage it looks to be the likely course of action.

And it would seem the ISPs have been handed a real let-off. Federal communications minister Malcolm Turnbull has hinted that the content providers -- presumably including record companies and movie studios -- ought to carry the financial burden of any legal action against "pirates" should a “three-strikes” policy be implemented. 

In an interview broadcast Thursday on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Turnbull took the example of NZ -- “it’s probably the best comparison” -- where he noted that after the third notice is issued in respect of copyright violation, it's then up to the rights holder to take the lead in suing for damages. “There are some people in the content industry who believe that the costs of this should be borne in whole or in part by the telecommunications sector – by the ISPs.” When pressed on whether he agreed with this stance, Turnbull added: “I don’t find that a particularly persuasive argument.”

Online piracy has been a hot topic Down Under in recent years. Australia’s copyright framework was put to the test in a long-running legal saga which saw Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (representing movie studios and TV broadcasters) face-off against the iiNet ISP. Ultimately, the ruling was handed down in 2012 that the Perth-based iiNet did not authorize its customers' copyright infringement, a decision, Turnbull added this week, which was “absolutely correctly decided by the High Court, in my view.”

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The creative industries in Australia, like elsewhere, are desperate to stop its products from being lifted for free. Australia’s record industry took a big hit last year, with annual recorded music revenue in 2013 down by 11.6% to Australian $351.6 million ($313 million), according to wholesale trade figures published by ARIA. Many in the business blame piracy for the downturn.

Turnbull has made his opinion crystal-clear on how high the stakes are. “There is billions of dollars of value globally being stolen and the creators of content, I mean, I am a passionate defender of the Internet and freedom on the internet, but freedom on the Internet doesn’t mean freedom to steal.” 

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Earlier this year, George Brandis, who serves in the dual role of attorney-general and minister for the arts, expressed his support for the creative industries and suggested ISPs would play a much bigger role in copyright enforcement. The government, he said, would consider “possible mechanisms” to provide a “legal incentive” for ISPs to co-operate with copyright owners in preventing infringement on their systems and networks. “This may include looking carefully at the merits of a scheme whereby ISPs are required to issue graduated warnings to consumers who are using websites to facilitate piracy,” he said. 

It was Brandis who this week unveiled the Online Copyright Infringement Discussion Paper. "Online copyright infringement remains relatively strong in Australia, but is falling internationally,” the report notes. To change all that, the government proposes amendments to the 1968 Copyright Act. The raft of measures raised in the paper include site blocking -- “extended injunctive relief to block infringing overseas sites” -- and, of course, the document reviews the various systems now in place in the United States, the United Kingdom and New Zealand.

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Consumer rights organization Choice, responding to the earlier, leaked document, warned that the “war on pirates will impact all Internet users.” Choice campaigns manager Erin Turner said, “The paper considers how to force ISPs to take responsibility for monitoring and preventing copyright infringement. In addition, it looks at introducing an anti-piracy Internet filter.” Turner added, “Looking at international examples, we know that the policies proposed are high-cost with low results. Similar policies in France and New Zealand have cost significant amounts of money. Our fear is that a high-cost system will lead to all consumers paying more for the Internet.”

Turnbull says he’s keen to hold a forum on the issue in the coming weeks.