Australia passes controversial anti-piracy web censorship law

A controversial bill to allow websites to be censored has been passed by both houses of the Australian parliament. The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 allows companies to go to a Federal Court judge to get overseas sites blocked if their “primary purpose” is facilitating copyright infringement.

Dr Matthew Rimmer, an associate professor at the Australian National University College of Law, points out that there is a lack of definitions within the bill: “What is ‘primary purpose’? There’s no definition. What is ‘facilitation’? Again, there’s no definition.” That’s dangerous, he believes, because it could lead to “collateral damage,” whereby sites that don’t intend to hosting infringing material are blocked because a court might rule they were covered anyway. Moreover, Rimmer told The Sydney Morning Herald that controversial material of the kind released by WikiLeaks is often under copyright, which means that the new law could be used to censor information that was embarrassing, but in the public interest.

The bill passed easily in both houses thanks to bipartisan support from the Liberal and Labor parties: only the Australian Greens put up any fight against it. Bernard Keane explains in an article on Crikeythat the main argument for the new law—that it would save Australian jobs—is completely bogus. Claims that film piracy was costing 6100 jobs every year don’t stand up to scrutiny: “If piracy were going to destroy 6000 jobs in the arts sector every year, why is employment in the specific sub-sector that according to the copyright industry is the one directly affected by piracy now 31,000, compared to 24,000 in 2011?” Keane asks.

As well as being based on a false premise, the new law will also be ineffectual, since Australians can simply use to web proxies and VPNs to circumvent any blocks that are imposed. This has raised the fear that the courts will go on to apply the new law to VPN providers, although Australia’s Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull has insisted this won’t happen. According to TorrentFreak, last week Turnbull said: “VPNs have a wide range of legitimate purposes, not least of which is the preservation of privacy—something which every citizen is entitled to secure for themselves—and [VPN providers] have no oversight, control or influence over their customers’ activities.” If Turnbull sticks to that view, it is likely that Australians will turn increasingly to VPNs to nullify the new law.

As Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam wrote today, the real solution lies elsewhere: “The government is ignoring the opportunity to work with content providers and remove the reasons for people currently accessing content through torrents and other sources. Just deliver content in a timely and affordable manner, and piracy collapses.”

That’s no mere theory: survey after survey shows that the approach is already working elsewhere. It’s a pity that the Australian government didn’t pay more attention to those figures instead of the listening to the “foreign rights holders and lobbyists who have collectively donated millions of dollars to the Liberal and Labor parties,” whom Ludlam claims have been the driving force behind the introduction of the new law.

This article originally appeared in Ars Technica.

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