The Federal Attorney-General’s Department has invited major Australian ISPs and content owners to meet with officials and discuss the current landscape with regard to online copyright infringement, as it seeks to advise the Government on the current landscape and the views held by different sides of the debate.
The Australian newspaper reported this morning that organisations including the Australian Content Industry Group, the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, another group called ‘Digital Entertainment Alliance Australia’ have been invited from the content side of the fence, while Telstra, Optus, the Internet Industry Association and the Communications Alliance will represent ISPs.
However, while the newspaper had reported the push had come from the office of Attorney-General Robert McLelland (pictured), a spokesperson for McLelland noted the meeting had been convened by the Secretary of the Attorney-General’s Department, Roger Wilkins, “to gauge the views of key stakeholders with a view to advising Government on the current state of play and stakeholder views”.
Departmental officials are regularly called upon to provide advice to the executive branch of government (ministers and Cabinet), to better inform policy decisions.
Although senior Labor figures such as Communications Minister Stephen Conroy have on occasion commented directly on the issue of online copyright infringement, so far it appears that the Federal Government has largely been awaiting the outcome of the high-profile court case between iiNet and AFACT over BitTorrent file sharing before taking a concrete position on the matter.
The case — which is shortly slated to head to the High Court in a second appeal by AFACT — has largely come down in iiNet’s favour in judgements over the past several years. It focuses on the use of the BitTorrent file-sharing protocol, which is currently the dominant file-sharing technology used for online copyright infringement — although it is also used extensively for legally sharing content.
However, based on some segments of the judgements, AFACT has begun approaching other ISPs outside of the iiNet trial, with a view to working with them to refine their copyright infringement policies to more strongly tackle the issue.
“The Attorney-General has always said that his preference is for industry to work together to develop a code to address this issue, but that the Government was open to considering other options should industry be unable to agree on a solution,” McLelland’s spokesperson said today. “Stakeholders have expressed differing positions on the need for, and scope of, any Government intervention on this issue.”
To be honest, it appears as if these meetings being held by the Attorney-General’s Department are not that significant. It does not appear that they constitute any form of negotiated arbitration between the two sides, nor do I expect any legislation or solid policy to be formed by the Government as a result. What they appear to be is exactly what the Attorney-General’s office said today — briefings which will aid the department in advising Attorney-General McLelland on the matter.
It would simply not make sense for the Government to take any action on this matter until the High Court case between iiNet and AFACT has been settled. The role of the executive branch of Government is to set policy. Well, policy on the issue is already pretty clear and has been so for some time — that online copyright infringement is illegal. What iiNet and AFACT are in court about is the extent to which an ISP is responsible for taking action when external organisations detect copyright breaches by the ISP’s users.
If, following the conclusion of the case, the Federal Government believes the courts have gotten it wrong, and a substantial inequality exists between the two warring sides, I would expect it to take more serious action at that point — perhaps some form of negotiated arbitration between ISPs and content-owners, or even legislative change.
But intervening in an industry debate while a High Court case is going on? That just doesn’t seem like something any government in its right mind would do.
Image credit: Office of the Attorney-General