If you want a display of how technologically illiterate and plain dumb our major-party politicians can be, look no further than the report by the Senate’s Legal and Constitutional Affairs committee yesterday about the government’s proposal to allow the copyright industry to censor the internet to block undesirable sites.

The Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015 is notionally aimed at forcing ISPs to block piracy sites, even though similar foreign schemes have been used to block legitimate sites both deliberately and inadvertently. In particular, the bill has been drafted widely enough to enable the copyright industry to demand ISPs block access to sites providing encryption and anonymisation services, like Virtual Private Networks.

The committee, which includes former policeman Barry O’Sullivan from the LNP and Labor right-winger Jacinta Collins (who embarrassed herself when supporting the Coalition’s mass surveillance laws), vaguely wondered whether it would be a good idea to let the copyright industry have the power to block VPNs, which are widely used across industry and even government agencies for communications security, and was told by the officials of the Attorney-General’s Department that VPNs could be targeted under the bill and that exempting VPNs in the legislation would be “odd”. Nonetheless, the committee decided simply to say “the committee would however be reassured if the government were to clarify the status of VPNs in the Explanatory Memorandum to the Bill” — it couldn’t even be bothered making a recommendation on the issue, leaving lawful access to VPNs at the mercy of the doggedly pro-surveillance Attorney-General’s Department and the copyright industry.

The committee was also presented with a slew of evidence that site-blocking simply doesn’t work (as Crikey has previously explained), but chose to ignore them in favour of unevidenced assertions from the copyright industry and AGD that it was effective in reducing traffic. In the report, the committee cites an AGD bureaucrat saying “that there ‘is a value in disrupting the business models that propagate and promote online piracy'” as a sort of definitive statement. But when you check what the bureaucrat actually said, he is merely citing the submissions of copyright industry outfits like Village Roadshow, who have funded their own “independent studies” to prove site-blocking works (and in fact the industry-owned study that Village Roadshow relied on has had its profound flaws exposed).

The only independent study that anyone can point to that gives a glimmer of hope that site-blocking might work is a very recent one by three US academics. Even it finds “blocking The Pirate Bay [the world’s best know bittorent site, here] had little impact on UK users’ consumption through legal channels. Instead, blocked users switched to other piracy sites or circumvented the block by using Virtual Private Networks.” But it finds that if you block many piracy sites at once — in the studied example, 19 at once — you get a rise in the use of paid legal streaming sites.

So the only way site-blocking could be effective is if copyright holders band together and force ISPs to take out dozens of sites at once — and even then the benefits to legitimate sites are small.

The only problem with this is that, as this article explains, site-blocking is a painfully technology-specific piece of legislation. The history of piracy is one of constant innovation as users and software writers devise ever-better ways of sharing content, and apps that enable piracy are now spreading that are impossible to block (you can block a site, how do you block an app? Although that hasn’t stopped the copyright industry trying).

And notice what happened in that US study when there was mass censorship of piracy sites — what happened? Users who couldn’t evade blocks moved to legal streaming services (like Netflix) — not free-to-air broadcasters, pay-TV or movies. That is, they switched to the cheapest, most convenient, user-friendly and consumer-empowering content service.

The real lesson is, if you want to stop piracy, offer what consumers want. As Greens Senator Scott Ludlam wrote in his dissenting report, “the Bill will not meet its aims, as it does not address the underlying cause of online copyright infringement: the continual refusal of offshore rights holders to make their content available in a timely, convenient and affordable manner to Australians.”

But that’s too complicated for the major parties.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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