Government prepares to push website-blocking through parliament

Debate on the government's anti-piracy legislation is scheduled for next week according to the House of Representatives draft schedule, with the Coalition having previously indicated it wants the new law passed before parliament's winter break.

The lower house's draft legislation program (PDF) has debate on the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 scheduled for noon on 16 June.

The Senate's draft legislation program (PDF) lists the bill under government business for 18 June.

Attorney-General George Brandis indicated during a recent Senate Estimates hearing that the government wants the bill passed before the end of June.

Yesterday a bipartisan report from a Senate inquiry backed the website-blocking regime that the bill will introduce.

It was left to Greens Senator Scott Ludlam to oppose the bill, writing in a dissenting report that the legislation should not be passed.

If the bill becomes law, rights holders will be able to apply to the Federal Court for an injunction that will force an ISP to block its customers from accessing a website.

The website-blocking scheme applies to overseas-based websites that are involved in or facilitate copyright infringement.

The report of the Senate inquiry recommended that a review into the effectiveness of the scheme be conducted two years after it is introduced.

Although that proposal met with support from Internet Australia, the advocacy group reiterated its call for the bill to be delayed until it was clear what impact that the availability of video-on-demand services, such as Netflix, Stan and Presto, will have on piracy.

"It's hard to see the urgency with this bill," said Internet Australia's CEO, Laurie Patton.

"Why not wait and see how the new [video-on-demand] services go before we put ISPs through the wringer with this sort of legislation, especially when there is no real proof that it will work?

"In fact there's been no serious attempt to work out exactly how big a problem we actually have and whether there is a serious cost to the rights holders that justifies site blocking laws."

The government has not conducted a cost-benefit analysis of the bill.

"It looks to me like the committee members were resigned to the bill passing and therefore didn't see much point in making a fuss," Patton said.

In the wake of the inquiry's report, consumer advocacy group Choice said it had launched a campaign targeting Labor MPs and senators, asking them not to support the bill.

"Today’s decision is an attempt to kill VPNs and entrench the 'Australia tax', driving up the cost of living for ordinary Australians," said Choice campaigns manager Erin Turner.

VPNs have been used by Australians to evade so-called geo-blocking measures, in order to access content that is either cheaper in other markets or not available (legally) in Australia.

"[T]his isn’t just about stopping access to Pirate Bay — it also covers sites for online tools like VPNs that help Australian consumers pay for legitimate content, for example from US or UK services," Turner said.

"We know both sides of politics are under a lot of pressure from big rights holders to support this new law and it looks like they have given in."

According to the government, particular technologies such as VPNs would "not be specifically targeted by or immune from an injunction", yesterday's report said.

"Rather, as indicated by the Department of Communications, if ... a rights holder were able to establish that a particular online location or technology had the primary purpose of infringing copyright then 'it would seem odd to legislatively protect such a factual instance'," stated the report.

The report said that the bill "does not explicitly contemplate the introduction of injunctions against VPNs" and that such services "are unlikely to meet the 'primary purpose test'" required for a blocking injunction to be granted.

However, the report added: "The committee would ... be reassured if the government were to clarify the status of VPNs in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill."

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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