So, now we know: the government’s data retention scheme, ostensibly justified by the scourge of terrorism and crime, is fundamentally linked to the crackdown on file sharing the government has launched at the behest of the copyright industry.

In October, new Australian Federal Police Commissioner Andrew Colvin embarrassed the government when, at the media conference explaining the government’s data retention proposal, he declared that data retention would “absolutely” be used by the AFP to pursue file sharing. Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull had to fairly unsubtly intervene to play down that angle, clashing as it did with the government’s insistence that data retention was all about national security and high-level crime.

As it turns out, Turnbull was misleading us. Technically, he wasn’t lying, but yesterday’s copyright crackdown announcement reveals the key role of data retention in the copyright industry’s plans. As Leanne O’Donnell explains in her analysis of yesterday’s announcement, data retention is fundamental to the copyright notice scheme that the government wants to impose on industry — ISPs have been given a deadline of April to agree a scheme with the copyright industry, or the government will simply mandate one, doubtless drafted by copyright lawyers. ISPs will have to retain records of IP addresses of all customers in order to know where to send copyright notices received from movie and music companies. Moreover, under the “process for facilitated discovery to assist rights holders in taking direct copyright infringement action against a subscriber” that will be imposed by the scheme, retention of IP addresses will be critical to enabling the copyright industry, law firms representing them and “copyright trolls” — the bottom-feeding lawyers who speculatively try to invoice internet users for piracy — to pursue file sharers.

The AFP won’t have any role in this process, so the government playing down the idea of data retention for AFP pursuit of file sharing wasn’t strictly incorrect. But it obscured the broader point that data retention will be absolutely fundamental to the copyright industry’s plans to crack down on file sharing while refusing to remove the geoblocking, delayed releases and price gouging that characterises its attitude to Australian consumers.

In fact, it’s likely data retention will be used far more frequently by movie and music companies and copyright trolls for legal action than the AFP will use it for criminal prosecutions.

The scheme announced by Turnbull and Attorney-General Brandis will also feature an internet filter, under which the copyright industry can seek a court order to require ISPs to censor sites they claim are being used for file sharing. As Crikey has previously explained, this sort of internet censorship doesn’t work, and it leads to overblocking and censorship. Turnbull insists this filter scheme isn’t an internet filter, a claim every bit as a bizarre and misleading as the nonsense he spouted when trying to reconcile the Prime Minister’s pre-election commitment to no ABC cuts and Turnbull’s savaging of the ABC budget. Of course it’s a filter, one that will work in much the same way as Stephen Conroy’s internet filter would have, except it will be private industry that will be nominating sites for blocking, instead of publicly accountable law enforcement and media regulatory bodies. To claim, as Turnbull did yesterday, that this isn’t a filter is a blatant lie, and one that treats voters with absolute contempt.

We’ve thus arrived at the fully fledged war on the internet by this government that some of us have long been predicting, a war motivated by commercial interests and the never-satisfied greed of security agencies for more powers of surveillance and control, and a deep and abiding fear of what citizens will do with communications technology that is no longer controlled by governments. Internet users, regardless of what they do online, whether they have “something to hide” or not (in fact, we all have something to hide, and that’s how it should be) can only rely on themselves in this war, not major party parliamentarians. That means encrypting and anonymising — using VPNs, using Tor, using software that prevents tracking, withholding information as much as possible from the agencies and companies hungry for it.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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