Update Thursday: Australian Communications Consumer Action Network chairman professor Michael Fraser has removed himself from the latest round of Australian piracy negotiations as a result of this and other articles.
Australians rank among the biggest media pirates in the world and the copyright industries have been grappling with how to deal with the issue for years.
In December last year the Attorney-General’s department threw up its hands and locked local internet service providers (ISPs) and copyright industry representatives in a room to hold secret discussions in the hope of finding a resolution.
But while the A-G’s department has bent over backwards to include industry representatives like the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft (AFACT), consumer advocacy groups have been notably excluded from the sessions.
The talks have also reportedly bogged down following local ISP iiNet’s recent win against AFACT in the Australian High Court. By unanimous decision, the court’s five judges determined that ISPs could not be held responsible for the copyright infringement of their customers.
The department suddenly announced yesterday that consumer representation would be brought into the room at ongoing discussions to be held tomorrow, in the form of the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) and the Internet Society of Australia.
Online advocate group Pirate Party Australia (PPA) was quick to note a problem. ACCAN is chaired by Professor Michael Fraser, a notable advocate of copyright and founder and former CEO of Copyright Agency Limited.
ACCAN has confirmed that Professor Fraser will be attending the talks, but a spokeswoman claimed he will not be representing the organisation he chairs. ACCAN also reportedly told the PPA that Professor Fraser will be sitting in as an "academic adviser", a claim that was neither confirmed nor denied by the Attorney-General’s Department.
PPA deputy president Simon Frew said Professor Fraser’s role in the discussions was a source of confusion.
"We’re disappointed that he’s getting a spot at the table considering his role representing big content and his attitudes to file-sharing in general. The copyright industries already have many representatives attending," he said.
Confusion also exists as to exactly what ACCAN will be advocating. A spokeswoman for ACCAN said her organisation currently held no specific position.
"We’re going into these meetings to listen. To see what the suggestions are and then we’ll go away and discuss them," she said. Her statement was backed by a later press release:
"It is 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."
ACCAN’s attendance is further complicated by its closeness to the Australian Government, as it receives all its funding via an industry levy administered by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy.
Frew noted concerns about ACCAN’s funding and the secrecy of the process as a whole. "It is quite problematic, we’ve been suspicious of the entire process … None of these issues contain any transparency, whether its ACTA, TPP or the upcoming copyright discussions … Everything to do with copyright in Australia is discussed behind closed doors," he told New Matilda.
Professor Michael Fraser was happy to discuss his personal views on copyright and made no attempt to distance them from those of the organisation he chairs.
"If we want to sustain freedom of expression, copyright is essential, it is a human right and it is necessary for maintaining our creative industries and cultural production. Copyright law and practice is in the public interest, it is the driver of innovation," he said.
He also stated that Australians were often discriminated against by copyright industries in terms of access to content and pricing.
"While we’re in favour of lawful access, there are a lot of short comings in the access to copyright works that need to be addressed. Whether you look at it from the consumers’ point of view, or the copyright industries, the market is not working effectively and sitting around a table to work out a solution is the way forward."
ACCAN opposes legislation that would remove internet access to subscribers who breached copyright, Fraser insists.
Kimberley Heitman, secretary for noted online user-rights lobby group Electronic Frontiers Australia, said he was concerned his organisation had not been asked to attend Thursday’s conference, or even told of its existence. "We were only informed by the Pirate Party an hour ago," he said. "We haven’t been invited. Now we know, we’re trying to get our foot in the door."
The only other new group to be invited to Thursday’s talks, the Internet Society of Australia, disputed that it could be categorised as representing consumers. ISA spokesman Robert Gregory, a director, said his organisation would be attending discussions for the first time and he could not reveal what would be discussed.
"All we can say at this stage is that the discussions are confidential… We don’t really represent anyone specifically. Our role is to promote the internet in general," he said.
So who will be advocating for consumers tomorrow? The worrying answer is, nobody.
The Attorney-General’s Department did not respond to queries regarding Thursday’s talks, nor to queries regarding Professors Fraser’s role as an "academic advisor", by deadline.