news Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has ripped responsibility for copyright (including Internet piracy), classification and censorship matters out of the portfolio of Attorney-General George Brandis and allocated them to Communications Minister Mitch Fifield, in what appears to be a damning indictment of Brandis’ handling of the issues.
Over the past half-decade, the Attorney-General’s Department has taken a controversial approach to handling copyright issues, developing legislation to block websites providing access to copyrighted material online and hosting a long-running series of talks between the broadband and content industries on how to handle the contentious issue of Internet piracy.
In addition, the department and Attorney-Generals of the day appear to have avoided dealing with the parallel issue of copyright reform, leaving topics such as the fair use provisions that are used in the United States on the table.
On an ongoing basis, Attorneys-General from both the Labor and Coalition have supported policies which appear to have been developed by the Department itself in this regard.
Up until now, Turnbull — in his previous role as Communications Minister — appears to have been willing to work with Attorney-General George Brandis and his department on such issues.
However, in administrative arrangements published last night (PDF) on the website of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, it was revealed that Turnbull had decided to take the issues of copyright, classification and censorship away from the Attorney-General and his Department altogether.
Instead, these areas — as with the Arts portfolio — will now move to the Department of Communications and the Arts led by new Communications Minister Mitch Fifield.
In its turn, as previously reported, responsibility for whole of government service delivery policy will shift to the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. This is believed to mean that the Digital Transformation Office set up by Turnbull will shift into the Prime Minister’s own department. Whole of Government ICT issues, other than the ‘Government 2.0’ issues handled by the DTO, will continue to sit within the Department of Finance.
It appears that Turnbull’s own department will also take on responsibility for the open data parts of the Government.
Turnbull has also added national policy issues relating to the digital economy to Christopher Pyne’s Department of Industry, Innovation and Science, reflecting the fact that Pyne and his new Assistant Minister for Innovation, Wyatt Roy, will be responsible for dealing with the development of Australia’s next-generation digital economu.
The move in relation to copyright and the Attorney-General’s portfolio was immediately welcomed by at least one technology sector association.
Internet Australia — the peak body representing Internet users — issued a statement congratulating Turnbull’s move for showing “signs of a more realistic approach to Internet legislation”.
“Senator Brandis’s ‘site blocking’ legislation is one of a number of ad hoc laws passed by the Abbott Government that we believe have little chance of achieving their stated aim but do have the very real likelihood of damaging the integrity and and utility of the Internet,” said chief executive Laurie Patton.
“A trusted, open and accessible Internet is critical to our economic and social development, so it is encouraging to see Mr Turnbull taking action like this so early in his prime ministership”.
Internet Australia has also called on Mr Turnbull to re-evaluate the Data Retention Act, which was one of a series of so-called national security policy measures passed by the previous government despite widespread concerns being expressed by industry and civil society groups. Responsibility for this area continues to remain in Brandis’ portfolio.
“We believe that the Data Retention Act is fundamentally flawed,” said Patton. “Similar laws in other advanced countries are being watered down or scrapped in response to concerns that they infringe acceptable privacy protections while having been shown to have limited or no effect in the fight against terrorism. At the very least Internet Australia would like to see the number of agencies with access reduced and increased oversight, preferably by way of a judicial warrant, as a means of ensuring public trust and confidence in the process”.
It’s hard to know what to make of this move at this point.
On the one hand, in Opposition Turnbull took quite a modern approach to issues such as Internet piracy, largely stating his belief that these kinds of issues would be best solved by the content industry making its material available on a much more rapid, affordable and accessible basis than it has been doing so far.
It’s certainly not hard to argue that Brandis has done a pretty terrible job with the portfolio and that the Attorney-General’s Department in general has been mismanaging it for sometime.
On the other hand … Turnbull did personally support the introduction of the site blocking regime, and also publicly demanded that the telecommunications industry come to terms with the content industry to develop an industry code to deal with the Internet piracy issue. As with the MTM model for the NBN, these are not things that I think the new Prime Minister can easily walk away from.
There are, of course, new areas that a Turnbull Government could explore with respect to issues such as copyright. The Productivity Commission is currently conducting an examination of Intellectual Property reform, and the Attorney-General’s Department has commissioned a cost-benefit analysis of introducing fair use laws in Australia.
I suspect that Turnbull will use Fifield’s new stewardship of the copyright area to look forward at these new items on the agenda, rather than looking back and reforming Internet piracy laws and standards which have only recently been bedded down.