news The Federal Government has invited the nation’s leading telecommunications consumer groups to participate in the latest round of the closed door talks it is holding on the issue of Internet piracy, reversing a previous ban on consumer representatives attending such talks.
In February this year, major Australian ISPs sat down with the representatives of the film, television and music industries and the Federal Attorney-General’s Department, with the aim of discussing a potential industry resolution to the issue of online copyright infringement. The meeting was the fourth such meeting to be held, after a series of other meetings were held late last year under similar circumstances.
However, the Attorney-General’s Department has used a series of complex legal arguments to deny the release of documents associated with the meetings under Freedom of Information laws — redacting, for example, an entire 14 pages of notes taken by a departmental staffer at the event and other four pages of notes taken by a senior staffer from Communications Minister Stephen Conroy’s department. In addition, the department has previously explicitly blocked requests by consumer groups to attending the meetings.
However, this morning the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network, which is itself funded by the Federal Government, confirmed it had been invited to attend the latest round of talks held by the Attorney-General’s Department, to be held in Sydney this Thursday. This news was first reported by The Australian newspaper this morning.
Jonathan Gadir, ACCAN’s acting director of Policy & Campaigns, said it was “critical” that consumer representatives are part of discussions about copyright between government, content owners and Internet service providers.
“ACCAN will listen to the views being put forward by various groups at the meeting and assess their likely impact on consumers,” Gadir said. “What is clear to us at the outset is that any future copyright rules must serve the needs of the whole community. We believe the process for deciding the way forward should be as transparent as is possible and look forward to the discussions.”
The Attorney-General’s Department has not yet responded to a request for comment on the issue from Delimiter, but has confirmed to The Australian and ZDNet.com.au that all previous parties invited to the discussions have again been invited to attend.
Freedom of Information requests have revealed that the majority of the organisations who attended previous meetings were from content industry organisations, including the Asia-Pacific branch of the Motion Picture Association, the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, Foxtel, the Australian Home Entertainment Distributor’s Association, the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance, News Limited, Music Industry Piracy Investigations, the Australian Recording Industry Association, the Interactive Gaming and Entertainment Association, the Australian Publishers Association and the Australian Performing Right Association.
On the ISPs’ side, only Telstra, Optus, iiNet the Communications Alliance (which represents telcos), the Internet Industry Association and networking vendor Ericsson are known to have attended previous meetings.
The news comes six weeks after the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft lost its high-profile Internet copyright infringement case against Internet service provider iiNet in the High Court. AFACT managing director Neil Gane said in their judgement, the High Court judges had “unanimously recognised that legislative change was required to address the widespread copyright infringements via peer to peer technology in Australia”. “Both judgements in this case recognise that copyright law is no longer equipped to deal with the rate of technological change we have seen since the law of authorisation was last tested,” said Gane. “They both point to the need for legislation to protect copyright owners against P2P infringements.
“The Judges recognise the significant rate of copyright infringement online and point to the fact that over half the usage of iiNet’s internet service by its customers (measured by volume) was represented by Bit Torrent file sharing which was known to be used for infringing activities,” Gane added. “Now that we have taken this issue to the highest court in the land, it is time for Government to act.”
The loss was seen as strengthening the ISPs’ case that a content industry solution was needed to the issue of Internet piracy. In response to the verdict, Attorney-General Nicola Roxon said that the Government would examine the decision, and that the closed door industry talks would continue.
Update: Delimiter has received the following response from the Attorney-General’s Department: “A roundtable meeting will be held in Sydney on Thursday 7 June. All parties to the previous round table meetings are invited, including consumer representatives. The roundtable meeting will continue the useful discussions that have taken place so far.”
A lot of people will be considering it a great victory for Australian consumers that ACCAN has been invited to attend the secret piracy talks being held by the Attorney-General’s Department. And there is no doubt that this is a good thing. Finally, Australian consumers have representation in these talks.
However, I don’t consider it a great victory. I personally consider ACCAN’s invitation to be a tiny step forward in helping to deliver the most basic modicum of transparency and accountability to these talks. Let us not forget that these roundtables are still being held behind closed doors, are still discussing issues of Internet piracy without the direct involvement of the Australian public, and that the Attorney-General’s Department is still attempting to prevent any information about them from being known to everyday Australians.
There is a basic level of accountability and transparency that is not being met here; a benchmark which the Attorney-General’s Department is not meeting with respect to these discussions, and the invitation of ACCAN to the table does not bring the events up to that watermark.
It will be fascinating to see how much information ACCAN will disclose to the public about the meetings; if it is as closed-mouthed about the talks as the ISP and content industries and the Government have been, I will consider that the group is not meeting its duty to consumers. Consumers are ACCAN’s only real stakeholders, and the group has a responsibility to let the public know what is going on.