The Senate Has Passed The Government’s Site-Blocking Bill; Here’s What That Means For You

Will it work? Probably not. Did it have full bipartisan support? Of course.

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[Update February 18]: According to reports this morningVillage Roadshow will be the first copyright holder to act on last year’s site-blocking legislation in the Federal Court. The movie studio has filed a case to block streaming site SolarMovie and is reportedly also backed by Warner Brothers, Paramount, Universal, Sony, Disney and 21st Century Fox.

If successful, this will mean Australian internet service providers will be legally obligated to block customers’ access to the site, though, as previously discussed, it would still be available for those using VPNs. As revealed by Crikey’s Josh Taylor last week, Foxtel are also expected to launch their own case against piracy sites in the near future.

[Update December 15]: Well, it happened.

Late yesterday afternoon, after a full day of debate and months of anticipatory cringing, the Senate passed the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill. Intended to combat the vast and very real problem of online piracy, the legislation will see torrenting sites like The Pirate Bay, Kickass Torrents and Project Free TV blocked by internet service providers if and when the applications of copyright owners are approved by the Federal Court.

The legislation was developed by metadata enthusiast Attorney General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull (an adult human who ostensibly does not know what “a Pirate Bay” actually is). And despite considerable opposition from the public, expertstech giants and Senator for the Internet Scott Ludlam, the bill easily passed with bipartisan support — 37 votes to 13. Aside from the Greens, the only representatives to oppose the measure were Senators Ricky Muir, David Leyonhjelm, and Glenn “The Brick With Eyes” Lazarus.

So. What The Fuck Happened?

It’s no secret that the government’s been railing against piracy for some time now, and they have good reason. As Elmo Keep wrote for us a couple of years back, the “free economy” is having a disastrous impact on creative communities as well as the larger corporations they work for. The debate has been raging on, in Australia especially, for decades.

The issue came to the fore in February last year when the Australian Law Reform Commission tabled a report (Copyright and the Digital Economy), which detailed exactly how vast and unwieldy the problem was. In response, Brandis released a discussion paper stating, “there is no easy solution to preventing online copyright infringement”, and he’s been trying to find one ever since.

Instead of working with the official recommendations of the ALRC’s report, the government came up with the idea of site-blocking. Conveniently, it promised to turn around Australia’s reputation as a barren land of jerks and swindlers, it placated increasingly pissed rights holders, it fell right in line with the general policy of publicly shaming and inconveniencing young people at any given opportunity, but it didn’t necessarily promise any real results. The idea was first brought forward in cabinet meetings at the end of last year, officially introduced in March, and last week it cruised through the House of Reps albeit with the explicit objections of Labor MP Ed Husic.

Labelling its logic “lopsided”, Husic argued the bill was “a clamp-down on piracy [that doesn’t] deal with a business system that is broken … I don’t like it. I didn’t like it. I fought against it. [I] lost this round but I view it as a battle which is part of a broader campaign for change.”

Similar objections came from the Senate yesterday, as Liberal Democratic Senator David Leyonhjelm called it “a drastic remedy and a blunt tool”.

But all this got kicked up a few notches when Greens Senator Scott Ludlam came in to bat.

“This is a bill that is at once lazy and dangerous,” he said. “It gives the impression of having done something, and it directly answers to its cashed-up donors and lobbyists.” Describing it as a “second internet filter”, he also expounded on the way such legislation could be used as justification for blocking other sites in the future.

“From little things, big things grow,” he said, sadly not in song.

He then proposed seven — count ’em — amendments to the bill which were swiftly rejected. As were his pleas to the Labor Party; despite calling for the ALP to “actually be the Opposition and try and hold this government to account for a change”, all 26 Opposition senators voted in favour of the Coalition’s bill.

On a completely unrelated note, earlier this year Josh Taylor of ZDNet found that in the last financial year, Village Roadshow donated $227,500 to the Labor Party and $329,919 to the Libs.

What Sites Will It Block And When?

The law is structured to put the onus on individual copyright holders, but it’s safe to assume it’ll be all of the major ones and soon. If Village Roadshow and Sony see one of their works on an international torrenting site (which they will), they can now apply to the Federal Court to get the whole thing banned (which OF COURSE they will). The Pirate Bay, Kickass Torrents and Project Free TV have all been mentioned in passing; if the court agrees that the “primary purpose” of these sites is to share copyrighted material, Australian ISPs will be forced to block them. iiNet won’t be putting up a fight. You won’t even get the chance to risk going to jail over a Matthew McConaughey film.

This (but everywhere).

If you’d like to keep track of all the sites on the no-go list, tech journo Will Ockenden has you covered. Last week, anticipating the sadly predictable result of yesterday’s vote, he made a site to track all the applications that will inevitably come through the Federal Court. You can sign up to the mailing list, follow the special Twitter account, or keep an eye on the site itself.

It even comes with a cute picture to make everything a little more bearable. (I’ll see myself out).

Will It Work?

Foxtel seems to think so! But hey, they also thought they were gonna be Australia’s main destination for Game of Thrones. 

In a statement released yesterday, the company’s Chief Executive Richard Freudenstein congratulated both major parties for taking a strong stance on the issue, and expressed his faith in the bill noting the success of other countries with similar legislation.

This is true. The UK, for instance, has blocked 93 torrenting sites under similar measures and has enjoyed positive results. But as the BBC have noted, this doesn’t last on a long-term basis — casual users get easily discouraged, but more experienced pirates always continue to do their thing. Moreover, with many taking to VPNs and similar geo-blocking software, it becomes impossible to track how much is being downloaded and from where.

On last week’s LatelinePirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde issued a similar warning to Australian legislators. As a nation long dissatisfied with the range and price of content of local entertainment options, we’ve already heartily taken to Virtual Private Networks, which would render the new law meaningless.

Of course, there are always ways to combat piracy. As Choice campaign manager Erin Turner told us earlier this year, “Stopping the worst of piracy is possible, but only if the Government looks at the reasons behind people’s behaviour … Give people better access to timely, affordable content, and you’ll be giving people reasons to buy instead of pirate.” The launch of Australian Netflix and local streaming services like Stan are evidence of great advances on this issue, but we’re still an age away from being on par with international offerings.

Case in point: with Foxtel, HBO Go, and torrents, you had three options when watching True Detective last night. Only the most expensive one was above board.

So, Pirates Can Just Use A VPN?

Yep! For now at least. There’s been concerns that this bill could be used to also target those accessing (and paying) for international services like US Netflix, Hulu and HBO Go, but it’s all still up in the air.

Earlier this year Australian Competition and Consumer Commission Chairman Rod Sims told ZDNet the bill needed to “ensure that a definition of infringing content does not apply to content authorised by owners in other jurisdictions”, to avoid copyright owners “inappropriately threatening” users. But speaking in the House of Reps last week, Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull explicitly minimised the concern. “If Australian rights owners have got issues about American sites selling content to Australians [that they don’t have the local rights for], they should take it up with them,” he said. “The big boys can sort it out between themselves and leave the consumers out of it.”

Senator Ludlam drew attention to this confusion before the vote, putting forward an amendment to “clear up the definition of sites targeted by the bill, so that it cannot include Virtual Private Networks which have legitimate purposes”. But hey, you should know how that goes by now:

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