Copyright clampdown: Scheme to block pirate websites 'open to abuse'

The government will introduce legislation to make Internet service providers responsible for blocking websites linked to online piracy

Despite government assurances, an anti-piracy scheme that will in some circumstances force ISPs to block access to websites could potentially censor unrelated material, according to intellectual property academic Dr Matthew Rimmer.

"I'd be concerned about such an incredible power being abused in a variety of different ways in terms of engaging in censorship or trying to engage in rent seeking," said Rimmer, who is an associate professor at the ANU College of Law and a frequent commentator on IP law.

The government today confirmed it would push ahead with the scheme, under which rights holders will be able to apply for a court order to have a website blocked. The government mooted the creation of such a scheme earlier this year.

The scheme will affect "websites that can be shown to be primarily for the purpose of facilitating online copyright infringement" according to a letter from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis to ISPs and rights holders.

"Because there are so many mixed-use or mixed-purpose sites, that might be a very tricky question," Rimmer said. "I think the Megaupload controversy highlights some of those issues."

Megaupload, the file sharing and online storage service founded by Kim Dotcom, was shut down after a US raid related to allegations of facilitating online copyright violations.

"There are a number of whistleblowing sites that have a large number of copyright materials on them," Rimmer said. "A site like Wikileaks, for instance, could certainly be targeted under these laws."

Rimmer said there had been a lack of discussion about safeguards to prevent abuse of the scheme.

"It runs entirely against [World Wide Web creator] Tim Berners-Lee's call for a Magna Carta of the Internet and an open and accessible internet. If you give individual copyright owners the ability to block websites, that will impact significantly upon the ideal of an open and free internet."

Two other pillars of the government's copyright enforcement proposals revealed today are the introduction of a graduated series of warnings to ISP customers alleged to have engaged in piracy and a discovery mechanism for rights holders to obtain ISP customers' details.

"Really, Christmas has come early for copyright owners," Rimmer said. "Roadshow and Foxtel and News Limited and [Rupert] Murdoch will be absolutely delighted. The proposals will slug a big Internet tax on the new economy, which will make those legacy companies delighted."

"The proposals do nothing to help consumers," the academic said. "Australian consumers have demanded a defence of fair use and measures in relation to IT pricing and greater accessibility to content.

"Really the government has nothing to offer Australian consumers apart from the prospect of threatening notes when Australian consumers access material in ways that displease copyright owners."

Read more: Praise, criticism for government's copyright proposals

Follow Rohan on Twitter: @rohan_p

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