Australian Censorship Creep: Competing Retailers Could Be Next

It seems that more and more sites are potentially being added to the censorship list. Now, it’s competing overseas retailers that could get the block.

The nightmare of free speech advocates are becoming reality in Australia. Once censorship is established in law, the list of different sites getting censored continues to expand.

For those keeping track, this Internet censorship saga started clear back in 2014. The government at the time was contemplating Internet censorship in an effort to stop users from accessing the most “egregious” websites. Supposedly, there’s no reason for users to access websites accused of having the primary purpose to infringe.

Of course, a major concern even back then is that if you introduce censorship in any form, the list of different sites would ultimately be expanded. Some dismissed those concerns as mere conspiracy theories possibly perpetuated by those who have an interest in undermining copyright. So, those laws ultimately passed.

Fast forward to last year, lobbyists were back. They pushed for amendments to the copyright laws. Specifically, they took issue to the language “primary purpose” and demanded that the language be loosened. Instead, they wanted to change the language to “primary effect”. Critics warned that such a language change could mean anything could be classified as an infringing site. Once again, supporters dismissed those concerns even though critics were proven right the first time.

After lobbyists spent millions to push for the laws, those laws were ultimately passed without evidence.

A couple months later, sure enough, major multinational corporate rights holders once again pushed to broaden the scope of censorship. Armed with a law that effectively declared open season for censorship, they immediately targeted fan sub sites. In court, they argued that although these sites do not offer copyrighted material, the text translations technically fall under the category of derivative works. Therefor, those sites need to be blocked.

Then, earlier this month, rights holders were back in court demanding the blocking of online converting websites. They argued that although these sites have legal purposes, they could be used to theoretically record copyrighted music. Arguing that this is the primary effect, they demanded that those sites get censored as well.

Now, another kind of website is being targeted: online retailers. According to Smart Company, the government is now mulling the blocking of competing overseas retail stores. They use the argument that they don’t pay local taxes. That means that local retailers are no longer on an even playing field. So, in conclusion, those sites must be blocked a well. From the report:

Amid ongoing industry concern over the effect of cross-border e-commerce on Australian retailers, Small Business Minister Michaelia Cash has raised the prospect of geo-blocking dodgy websites with Treasurer Josh Frydenberg and Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton.

In a letter sent to Frydenberg, Dutton and their respective assistant ministers late last year, Cash said local businesses were “competing with overseas entities on an uneven playing field” and internet service providers could be asked to block competitors which are deliberately defrauding the Commonwealth.

“It is open to the Commonwealth to request internet service providers disrupt access to specified online services by blocking the offending website(s),” Cash said in the letter, citing Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) advice.

The comments reference longstanding calls from local retailers, particularly in the toy and hobby, consumer technology and footwear categories, to address international websites undercutting their prices, supported by fraudulent invoices that understate product prices and omit payable GST.

So, once again, the scope of what could be censored may be expanding yet again weeks after it was already expanded to online conversion websites. What’s different about this case is that other industries are seemingly taking a cue from multinational corporate copyright holders and figuring that if they can order the censorship of what websites they please, why can’t they? Just formulate any old argument why it’s an emergency to block such websites and, voila, an oligopoly is theirs.

This case also points to the prospect that other industries could follow suit and begin pushing the government to censor websites they don’t like either. As we’ve pointed out earlier, there is really no limit to what can theoretically be censored in a climate like this. The only question is: what kind of site is going to be hit next?

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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