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Jan 20, 2010

The copyright outrage the geeks forgot to mention

The tech community hasn't done much of a job of persuading mainstream Australia that proposed internet censorship laws are a bad idea, despite their potentially crippling effect on freedom of speech, writes Angus Kidman.


Chances are you’ve never heard of ACTA. It’s not something that’s likely to come up in polite conversation; it has never been mentioned on Crikey. Indeed, I’d suggest the only chance you’re ACTA-aware is if you have a close personal involvement with  somebody who spends a lot of time playing with their PC late at night. (Yes, that’s a polite way of saying you’d probably need to be shagging a geek.)

I know this to be true because I’m at what’s undoubtedly the geekiest place in the Southern Hemisphere right now: linux.conf.au 2010, the annual gathering of Australian Linux enthusiasts. With commendable broad-mindedness, this year’s event is actually taking place in Wellington. Yes, in New Zealand. You’ve probably heard of it.

You might just have heard of Linux, the open source operating system favoured by people who know Windows is too unstable and Macs are too expensive. If you haven’t, just imagine a random mixture of your work IT department, some super-enthusiastic students and some scarily clever people, and a penguin mascot. There’s about 700 Linux supporters in Wellington this week, and they know more about technology than you (or I) will ever manage.

But back to the main issue. When ACTA got mentioned during a linux.conf.au keynote presentation by NYU anthropology professor Gabriella Coleman, the audience reaction was instantaneous: much booing and hissing. This crowd knew that the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement was potentially very bad news. But that bad news hasn’t been passed along much, even though a crucial meeting to decide the future of the proposal will take place next week.

(It’s on Australia Day and in Mexico, so local news coverage is likely to be slim, I’d predict.)

The ACTA proposal has been spearheaded by the US government, which apparently doesn’t think its existing draconian proposals in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (which Australian copyright law largely mirrors, thanks to the 2004 Free Trade Agreement) go far enough. The proposal has been debated at a series of meetings between stakeholders since 2007, and while confirmed information is fairly scant, earlier leaked documents suggest that as well as covering physical piracy, ACTA will try and enforce copyright in the digital realm, meaning the same kind of ISP-level meddling that’s associated with current internet censorship proposals in Australia.

The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade has a page about the treaty on its website, which is at pains to emphasise that it’s not designed to facilitate any of those “teenager fined millions for downloading song” headlines, which us geek journalists love.

“The participants in ACTA negotiations do not intend for the ACTA to target individuals, the privacy of individuals or the property of individuals where those individuals are not engaged in commercial scale trade in counterfeit and pirate goods,” it primly notes. At the rate music sales are plummeting, copying a single track might soon count as commercial-scale trading, but I digress.

What DFAT doesn’t discuss at all is the highly secretive nature of the treaty process, something Coleman made much of in her presentation. As she pointed out, a prolonged legal campaign by the Electronic Freedom Foundation in the US did eventually result in 159 pages of documents associated with the treaty being released — but only after 1362 had been deemed as potentially violating “national security” and withheld. Open government seems to be playing second fiddle to the demands of the IP protection crowd, which counts deep-pocketed software makers and movie studios among its most verbal supporters. Third-world countries are conspicuously absent from the discussion.

For what it’s worth, Coleman — who has spent years observing geeks in their natural habitat, arguing with each other via various internet media — isn’t entirely convinced that ACTA spells inevitable doom, assuming its provisions do eventually pass into law.

“We should feel optimistic about the current state of affairs, because never before have there existed such profound and robust alternatives to the global tangle of IP provisions,” she said. The “alternatives” she’s referring to are principally open source software such as  Linux, which is maintained by volunteers and can be altered and adopted by anyone, and the associated “copyleft” movement, which has given rise to phenomena such as Wikipedia

I wish I shared her optimism. I also wish that the geek community could do a better job of conveying the importance of these issues to the rest of the world. It’s all very well sitting booing and hissing, but in a room full of Linux lovers, the message is only being spread to the converted.

So far, the tech community hasn’t done much of a job of persuading mainstream Australia that proposed internet censorship laws are a bad idea, despite their potentially crippling effect on freedom of speech. Given that background, the odds of anyone else ever hissing at the mere mention of ACTA — which could pose just as great a threat — seem very low indeed.

Angus Kidman is a freelance journalist specialising in fairly geeky topics and editor of Lifehacker Australia.



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25 thoughts on “The copyright outrage the geeks forgot to mention

  1. October

    Dear Author,

    I didn’t read your article as your first paragraph contained no information or hook of any kind. I even tried to read your second paragraph out of respect to Crikey, but there was nothing there, either.

    If Crikey expects to survive with his kind of sloppy, self indulgent writing – blogorrhea instead of journalism – it is in for a nasty shock, especially if it expects to be paid for it.

    A Reader

  2. A government big enough to give you everything, is strong enough to take everything you have.

    LOL^^Author Pawned.

  3. Most Peculiar Mama

    :”…despite their potentially crippling effect on freedom of speech…”

    Maybe you could point to us the relevant passage in the Australian Constitution that confers upon its citizenry the right to “free speech”?

    Or will you plead the Fifth Amendment?


  4. Angus Kidman

    No, there isn’t a constitutional right to freedom of speech, but I don’t think that means you can’t ever refer to “freedom of speech” in an Australian context. If you choose to disagree, I can’t stop you . . .

  5. homesjc

    Power to the geeks and for freedom of information.

    Having spent this morning chasing up some IP issues with generic chemicals, and having been involved with the US free trade agreement, we need a good active open discussion on IP and copyright. We were duded in some areas and have yet to realise it. We nearly lost significant parts of the pharmaceutical benefit scheme again through excessive protection of IP.

    Time to demand that non Australian corporations be denied certain privileges. ie access to directly lobby governments, and that their Australian representees need to submit publicly available reports on subject, time and any inducements. How do you classify escorts?

    Closely examine the impact on Haiti of US cooperation’s. The rolling of the Aristide government was in part due to the workers of a US cooperation demanding and getting better wages, then having that reversed after the intervention. Other incidents bring to mind the consequences of action to support US corporations – the United Fruit Company in Central America. Power to the geeks.

  6. Delerious

    I’m writing to say I liked the article and I hope Angus would write more….the last thing I expected was a luddite to comment on it in the first instance. Oh well, I’m shagging a geek and he is shagging me.

  7. acannon

    I’m afraid I still don’t get what ACTA is about. Can you clarify?

  8. Jillian Blackall

    “ACTA will try and enforce copyright in the digital realm, meaning the same kind of ISP-level meddling that’s associated with current internet censorship proposals in Australia.”

    That does sound like something to be concerned about. It’s true it hasn’t received mainstream coverage.

  9. Martin C. Jones

    Thanks for the article, Angus.

  10. Daniel Bond

    I wish there was more flesh in here about ACTA. Judging by the heavily-redacted leaked and FOI’d drafts, it could be much, much worse than internet filtering. 3 strikes, potential imprisonment for “significant wilful copyright and trademark infringement even where there is no direct or indirect motivation of financial gain.” , notice-and-takedown, and required proactive policing of user-submitted content (read: the death of youtube, comment threads, flickr … pretty much web2.0 in its entirety).

    Here’s a bit more, via bOINGbOING on a draft leaked late last year: http://boingboing.net/2009/11/03/secret-copyright-tre.html
    and the shut-out of the third world and civil society: http://www.boingboing.net/2009/04/14/new-acta-copyright-t.html

  11. Robert Johnson

    I’m not an IT geek, but this article doesn’t seem to add enough to the main issues (which should’ve addressed the gap bemoaned in the penultimate paragraph and not labour the ‘geeky’ reporting). I sought feedback from a US-based mainstream-OSS IT friend who drew my attention to http://arstechnica.com/tech-policy/news/2010/01/actas-shameful-secret.ars It is an important and informative read.

    He also noted that informed reaction is hampered by (1) secrecy of the provisions (as Angus Kidman reports), and (2) mainstream media likely having a vested interest in ACTA’s passage. It is rumoured that the provisions include that anti-piracy enforcement may be moved to government (rather than the ‘wronged’ company) so that it can be treated as a criminal rather than civil matter (I’m out of my depth on such matters so may misunderstand this). This would be a big change in intellectual property mechanisms and significantly increase (further) big business influence on government.

    There is also concern that ACTA may threaten the existence of Free/Libre and Open Source software by attacking its use of copyright law in a manner contrary to traditional use in imposing many restrictions, by tackling the ‘copyleft’ mandate of few if any restrictions. But, as noted, the provisions of ACTA are a closely held secret by an Obama Administration committed to public openness, although I see in the above arstechnica weblink that it has evidently been shared with 40 other countries. Given Angus’ reference to the US/Australia Free Trade Agreement, it would been useful to hear whether this is likely another case of US corporate interests determining Australian domestic laws.

  12. James Turnbull

    Great article – the interesting part about ACTA is indeed the secrecy around it – what exactly does Copyright have to do with “national security”?

    You don’t need to be a conspiracy theorist to see that governments refusing the disclose details of the treaty suggests something underhand is at work.

  13. Most Peculiar Mama

    “…but I don’t think that means you can’t ever refer to “freedom of speech” in an Australian context…”

    You referred to something that doesn’t exist. Why did you feel the need to do that?

    “… If you choose to disagree, I can’t stop you…”

    Great. You won’t make it as a journalist peddling falsehoods.

    But if you choose to disagree, I can’t stop you.

  14. James Turnbull

    There isn’t even really an “implied freedom of speech” in Australia – barring some High Court rulings. This article from the Parlimentary Library covers it better than I could:


    Also these articles:


  15. Smithee

    I kept reading hoping there was some point to the article. What crap.


  16. Purkaeus

    There might not be an official ‘freedom of speech’ in this country, but if the citizens accept that as the way things are meant to be and move on, there never will be such freedom. We have every right to claim freedom of speech, should we so desire, and if the government and high court don’t agree, they can stick their constitution and laws where they don’t fit. Any constitution or law that infringes or makes no provision for general freedom of speech in a country like this should be wholeheartedly dismissed by self-respecting citizens.

  17. Jillian Blackall

    Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) affirms that “everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.”

    MPM, you are a disgrace and I am ashamed to be on the same side of politics as you.

  18. James Turnbull

    @Jillian Blackall – I am afraid you’re not quite right there. The UDHR indeed does say that and Australia is a signatory to this treaty. But to ratify treaties as Australian law governments must do so in an Act of Parliament. They’ve done this for some of the Articles of the UDHR but not the free speech sections thus making them not enforceable under Australian law.

  19. Jillian Blackall

    Thanks James. I didn’t know that the free speech sections had not been ratified by the Australian government.

  20. sean

    I appreciate Angus’ intention but if we can’t have a sensible debate on internet filtering, there’s no chance ACTA is going to stopped whatever its provisions.

  21. homesjc

    Further to my comments above. Some US commentators have just realised that the recent change in funding for political parties have allowed any corporation or entity world wide to contribute unlimited funds to influence US Politics.

    Time for much more transparency in decision making that affects citizens, and good freedoms of speech and freedom from the use of libel law to close down dissent.

    Agree with comment that robust positive senesible analysis is needed, and this is too important to be left as a sideshow.

  22. photogeek

    But the Geeks didn’t forget to mention this! It’s been all over Twitter for the past few weeks!

  23. shell

    Thanks for covering this – we should be hearing more about this in the media. I’ve read that the ACTA treaty has a clause that requires participating Governments to filter their internet – so all this is tied up together – the Australian Governments internet filter and the ACTA treaty but the public is not being told.

    This will fundamentally change the internet. Governments and Corporations should not have access to these ‘secret’ negotiations when the public is not being informed. This treaty is setup to protect the income of shareholders for multinationals and is not in the public interest.

    People are being forced to sign non-disclosure agreements and people on twitter are being ejected from the meetings about this treaty – and these are only the ‘public’ meetings – what is going on behind closed doors?


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