Aussie Site Blocking Imminent But Three Strikes Abandoned

Today brings mixed news concerning Australia's approach to online piracy. While Hollywood studios and local TV giant Foxtel have confirmed they are filing applications with the Federal Court to have several sites blocked, the controversial "three strikes" warning scheme against end users has been abandoned, for now.

ausThe issue of online piracy is a political hot-potato in dozens of regions around the world but few developed countries have received as much attention as Australia.

Historically treated as second-class citizens when it comes to official content availability and pricing, Australians have frequently been labeled some of the world’s worst pirates, a stigma that has attracted much attention from United States entertainment companies.

To that end Australia has faced a huge effort to introduce two key anti-piracy mechanisms. On the one hand Hollywood studios, led by local entertainment outfit Village Roadshow, have campaigned for the introduction of web blockades against the likes of The Pirate Bay and other unauthorized media distribution sites.

On the other, entertainment companies of all flavors have lobbied hard for a so-called “three strikes” warning scheme that would see regular Internet users monitored by anti-piracy companies and then sent escalating warning notices by their respective Internet service providers.

Today there is news on both fronts and for Aussie file-sharers there is cause for both disappointment and cautious celebration.

Site blocking

Site blocking, which has been gaining traction in numerous other countries, is moving ahead at pace. Village Roadshow and local TV giant Foxtel have confirmed separate actions in the Federal Court to block several pirate sites.

Village Roadshow and partners Warner Bros, Universal, Paramount, Sony, Disney and 21st Century Fox are teaming up to target streaming portal Solarmovie, a site which is already blocked in the UK and has just been the subject of legal action in Singapore.

Foxtel’s complaint targets four other sites including (no surprises) The Pirate Bay.

“These websites already have a lot of malware and other dangers associated with them and as the big ones like solarmovie.ph are knocked own it will be hard for them to get back up again quickly,” says Village Roadshow co-chief executive Graham Burke.

If their applications to the Federal Court are successful, local Internet service providers will be required to block the sites so that their subscribers are unable to access them by regular means.

According to ABC, rightsholders and four or five of the country’s largest ISPs have been in negotiations for some time over how blockades will be implemented.

DNS blocking / cache poisoning is reportedly being requested by rights holders. Since it is also the method preferred by the Communications Alliance which represents most of the country’s Internet service providers, it’s likely blocking will move forward on that basis.

That could mean, however, that users of DNS systems not involved in the blocking system will be able to circumvent blockades in much they same way they currently avoid geo-restrictions put in place by Netflix. Furthermore, DNS blocking is entirely defeated by use of a decent VPN.

Three strikes

While many Aussies will be disappointed that their favorite sites are likely to be picked off and blocked in the coming months, there is something for individual file-sharers to cautiously celebrate.

After years of negotiations it looked almost inevitable that a so-called “three strikes” scheme would be implemented Down Under. The system would involve pirates being monitored and notified of their behavior via escalating warning notices, with legal action being the final step.

However, in somewhat of a surprise announcement Village Roadshow’s Graham Burke has informed CNET that the plans have been shelved.

“We reached the conclusion after having an independent audit firm evaluate the cost of sending out the notices, and we concluded that it was too much of an imposition to ask the ISPs, and also from our own point of view, the amount it would cost. So we decided not to push it forward,” he said.

Given the years of negotiations, government involvement, not to mention the trauma caused by the ill-fated iiNet legal action that came to a close in 2012, the turnaround is nothing short of spectacular. However, that the basis for the back-tracking is cost-based is no surprise whatsoever.

“At the moment, [the warning system] is manual,” Burke said. “And it’s just so labor intense, that it’s somewhere in the vicinity of $16 to $20 per notice, which is prohibitive. You might as well give people a DVD.”

But while costs are too high at the moment, it appears a more cost-effective automated system is somewhere on the horizon. Burke won’t say when it will appear, but he predicts that when it’s firing on all cylinders it would bring the costs of notices down to a few cents each.

While rightsholders should be expected to have another bite of the cherry in the not too distant future on the warning front, in the meantime Aussie pirates will have relative freedom to go about their business. The Dallas Buyers Club case has also collapsed, so it could be sometime before trolls raise their heads in the region. That leaves companies like Village Roadshow appealing to the public’s better nature.

“We are going to be mounting a massive campaign to reinforce the fact (to the public) that piracy is not a victimless crime and we have to continue to provide content in a timely way and at affordable prices,” Burke said.

Whether the studios manage to achieve both ‘timely’ and ‘affordable’ will be for the public to decide in the months to come. Most are not convinced thus far.

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