Aussie Pirates Face Site Blocking, But No Disconnections

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Australians who illegally download copyrighted material won't face any new regime to slow down or suspend their Internet connections. However, proposals being presented to cabinet today will outline a new mechanism allowing copyright holders to have 'infringing' sites blocked at the ISP level.

For many years Australia has been struggling with a reputation for being a nation of file-sharing pirates and throughout the summer the most serious debate thus far consumed the nation.

Leading the charge were rightsholders who tabled demands for ISPs to take greater responsibility for their subscribers, under weight of legislation if necessary.

Once this liability had been clearly established, rightsholders argued that ISPs should be forced to send notices to their subscribers. These would warn customers that their connections were being used for piracy and that consequences, including the slowing down or disconnection of Internet services, would follow.

Finally, copyright holders sought a formal ‘pirate’ site blocking mechanism. This would allow individual domains to be targeted by legal action in order to have them rendered inaccessible to Australians.

After intense debate it appears that a watered-down version of the rightsholders wish-list will today be presented to the Australian Cabinet. According to Fairfax, Attorney-General George Brandis and Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull will present the reforms to colleagues during the final meeting of the year.

According to the report, new punishments for Internet downloaders are not part of the proposals, meaning that calls for connection throttling and account suspensions are off the table. Downloaders won’t get a completely free ride though.

The ministers’ proposals envision ISPs and rightsholders working together on a voluntary code aimed at educating consumers who persist in sharing files without permission.

Administered by telecoms regulator the Australian Communications and Media Authority, the code would see entertainment companies monitoring and gathering information on Internet users who share copyrighted material using BitTorrent. That information would be sent to ISPs who would then be required to forward written notices to subscribers informing them they are breaching copyright.

Of course, entertainment companies and ISPs have been here several times before, with negotiations on this very topic breaking down time and again on various issues, including who will pay to implement the scheme. This time, however, the government is threatening to legislate if agreement can’t be reached and if that happens ISPs might find themselves less well off.

While they are likely to negotiate hard, it may be in ISPs interests to reach some kind of agreement. The proposals for “extended authorization liability” – holding ISPs responsible for users’ piracy – appear to be off the table, at least for now, and the last thing they need is for that to rear its head again.

But whatever happens on those fronts, ISPs will still find themselves in the spotlight on another matter – the controversial issue of site blocking.

Today, Brandis and Turnbull will ask the Cabinet to approve the development of a new legal mechanism which will allow rightsholders to obtain site blocking injunctions against ISPs. If approved, movie companies like Village Roadshow will be able to head off to court and have sites like The Pirate Bay blocked by all the major ISPs without too much difficulty.

The news of these proposals to Cabinet comes a day after consumer group Choice published the results of a survey which found that 67% of Australians have never pirated movies or TV shows online.

Of the 33% that do, half said their motivation was high prices, while 41% complained that content takes too long to arrive in Australia. The research found that 55% of consumers try to obtain content legally before turning to pirate sources.

In common with other similar studies, Choice also found that regular pirates are also avid consumers of legitimate content. Of those who pirate at least once a month, 56% will pay to go to the movies, a figure that drops to 36% for the non-pirating group.

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