Australian Government Mulling Internet Censorship to Slow File-Sharing

Australia is currently in the process of putting together a proposed copyright reform law aimed at slowing file-sharing. While the good news is that the proposal would merely seek to slow the connection speeds of alleged file-sharers, the bad news is that the government is wanting to resort to Internet censorship by blocking alleged file-sharing websites.

It may be surprising that a country is considering the idea of Internet censorship in the wake of a new incident in the UK that continues a long string of overblocking by the “Great Firewall of Britain”, but that is exactly what is currently being proposed in Australia according to a recent in the Sydney Morning Herald.

According to the report, Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull is putting together copyright reform laws that would see people who are accused of copyright infringement having their internet connection speed throttled. It’s a stark contrast to what has been pushed by copyright lobbyists for some time now as they hope that many countries around the world would adopt a sort of three strikes law. Such a law would force ISPs to disconnect their subscriber upon receipt of three accusations of copyright infringement. There was also a push in many countries to also adopt US style notice-and-takedown schemes that would allow copyright holders to sue alleged file-sharers for tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for the mere act of non-commercial copyright infringement. Both ideas have wide-ranging opposition from advocates, citizens, and academics alike for being too harsh and not being accountable enough. In fact, in countries that have adopted either guilt upon accusation systems, false accusations against innocent people have become commonplace while the people who actually commit acts of copyright infringement often go undetected. So, it is likely a relief for many Australians that, at most, throttling is the harshest penalty for those accused copyright infringement as it may deter rights holders from dragnet operations.

Unfortunately, that may be where the good news ends. From the report:

Cabinet will be asked to approve the creation of a mechanism allowing rights holders to seek a court injunction ordering internet providers to block overseas websites such as The Pirate Bay providing access to illicit material.

While the blocks would stop most people accessing illicit material, they are unlikely to stop tech-savvy Australians who use virtual private network (VPN) software to bypass them.

In a submission to government, peak telecommunications industry body Communications Alliance backed a site-blocking scheme with appropriate safeguards despite the risk of “collateral damage”. Legitimate sites could inadvertently be blocked and blocked sites may quickly reappear at a new address, the submission said.

Most telecommunications companies would welcome the light-touch approach outlined in the Cabinet submission but are concerned that determined lobbying by rights holders will sway the government to adopt a tougher approach. Since 1998, Village Roadshow, a strong advocate of an online copyright crackdown, has donated almost $4 million to the Labor and Liberal parties.

It’s like there is an acknowledgement of the problems associated with web censorship. The ease of circumventing such censorship (including the use of a VPN or Tor for instance) could also mean that use of such methods of accessing the Internet will become much more standard amongst users in the long term. That would reduce the number of “low tech” users that would theoretically be deterred which would raise the question of whether or not such extraordinary measures to stop such a small problem is worth it in the first place. In fact, advocates for a free and open Internet have argued from the very beginning that a solution to file-sharing will likely not come from the government. Instead, it will come from a business response by making unauthorized distribution less palatable and authorized distribution more attractive to the consumer. In short, make it easier to legally consume content rather than harder (a remark often aimed directly at the use of DRM in products sold to consumers).

Unfortunately, with the momentum going towards Internet censorship, it’s starting to look more and more likely that things in Australia will get worse long before things get better. The rationality of trying to implement a solution, regardless of how flawed it may be, just for the sake of looking like something is being accomplished, can be something that could be called into question.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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