Turnbull rips copyright portfolio from Attorney-General’s Dept


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.

Image credit: CeBIT, Creative Commons


  1. I’d say if nothing else its a means to keep the bad press at bay due to the prior bungling of said policies much in-line with NBN. Basically trying to set themselves up for the next election.

    Or could be a warning shot or protective shot across Brandis’ bow (I’ve no idea of his affiliations within party circles nor influence).

    • Sounds like a sad day for the internet indeed. No doubt the “new” internet will approach or exceed the capabilities of the great firewall of China, and there will be fines for everything, and draconian policies for disconnecting everyone who posts a disparaging comment about Turnbull.

      No doubt he will fast track the FTA with America, so all their copyright laws will then apply to Australia as well.

      A field day for Dallas Buyers Club coming up real soon now!

      • Too True! The flag should be changing to the Stars n Stripes very soon as we kowtow to the USA yet again and let them keep exploiting the citizens of Australia….I am fed up with being threatened, blackmailed, and bullied into accepting the current rip off status we endure in Oz…everything is 10-300 % dearer here than o\s and we get bugger all service in return.

  2. As a PR strategy it will limit ongoing damage to the Turnbull Government as a result of idiotic statements from someone who is intellectually incapable of understanding technology issues – no, he isn’t just uninformed, after being responsible for this portfolio for so long Brandis has had every opportunity to educate himself or acquire decent advice, so the fact that he hasn’t is deliberate and belligerent ignorance and ineptitude. Turnbull is going to have a hard enough time fighting internal factions within the LNP, what he needs to win the next election is a groundswell of public opinion behind him to silence the critics and guarantee them another term of government. To get the public onside he needs people to see that the future is brighter with him at the helm, not just brighter than under Abbott but brighter than a Shorten Government.

    So as much as this is likely to result in more reasonable policy, it is also very strategic – Brandis may have backed Turnbull, but he is still an arrogant Luddite that was in charge of a policy area that would continue to cause Turnbull damage. This is a strategically intelligent move.

  3. Considering the AG’s dept, and Brandis himself, seem hell bent on writing laws to keep lawyers employed rather than to serve the national interest, this move seems positive.

    Let’s hope we get some sensible changes in the future*.

    *Im not holding my breath tho.

  4. Good sense.

    Now lets see if Turnbull can keep his government in one piece beyond the honeymoon period.

  5. I’m not sure this is so much a damning indictment of Brandis, so much as the recognition that Copyright and Classification of content has changed mediums.

    Copyright and Classification has increasingly shifted towards a digital future. Sure, I don’t doubt that Turnbull is clearing house; but he’s also looking at the bigger picture. Something our previous PM had great difficulty achieving.

  6. Question, Renai:

    How do you delineate between a politician – cabinet member, no less – toeing a party line on eg data retention or site blocking as part of their role in Government, vs their personal politics?

  7. I’m sure that Mr Turnbull would remove ALL responsibilities from Mr Brandis if he could as the performance of the Attorney General has been horrible, not only in the political sense but even in the human sense.
    I wouldnt give Mr Brandis the responsibility of a bar of soap

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