Australia to target Google and Yahoo under internet piracy crackdown

Luke Henriques-Gomes
Complainants could seek an injunction requiring Google to remove search results for piracy websites under Australian laws. Photograph: Arnd Wiegmann/Reuters

The federal government will target search engines as it expands a crackdown on internet piracy, making it harder for Australians to illegally download free movies and music.

In a move hailed by the Australian film industry, the government on Thursday introduced legislation to parliament that would effectively expand the list of websites that companies could seek to have blocked.

Under existing laws introduced in 2015, copyright holders can seek an order from the federal court that requires internet service providers to block access to infringing websites.

The new laws propose to expand this so that complainants could also seek an injunction requiring search engines such as Google and Yahoo to remove or demote search results for piracy websites.

Those websites would be considered to have “the primary purpose or primary effect” of infringing on copyright, according to the legislation. The new laws would also allow copyright holders to more easily have mirror sites for piracy websites blocked.

Thursday’s announcement comes after a campaign from Australia’s film and television industry, most prominently Foxtel and Village Roadshow. The latter has previously argued that pirates were “facilitated by Google and other search engines” to circumvent Australian laws.

Ramon Lobato, a senior research fellow at RMIT’s school of media and communication, said the proposed changes would “significantly expand the scope of the existing site-blocking regime”.

“The government is proposing to allow blocking of additional platforms, including cloud storage sites [cyberlockers] that are used for piracy,” he told Guardian Australia. “This could be complex to implement, given that cyberlockers are multifunctional and have both licit and illicit uses. The devil will be in the detail here.

Foxtel and Village Roadshow have successfully applied to have internet service providers block sites including the Pirate Bay. Photograph: Bloomberg via Getty Images

“Some Australian users will continue to use VPNs to route around the new blocks, as they already do to access sites such as the Pirate Bay.”

Under the existing regime, Foxtel and Village Roadshow have successfully applied to have internet service providers block dozens of pirate sites and more than 200 different domains and IP addresses, including the Pirate Bay.

In a parliamentary submission earlier in the year, Foxtel had also requested the ability to get an urgent injunction to block sites hosting illegal streams of sporting events broadcast on its channels. So-called “live blocking” is in place in the UK.

The government did not allude to such a power on Thursday when announcing the new laws and the legislation did not appear to address the issue.

A Foxtel spokesman said: “Foxtel welcomes the introduction of the government’s newly proposed copyright amendment bill, which will strengthen the ability of the creative industry to combat the scourge of online piracy.”

The communications minister, Mitch Fifield, said on Thursday he did not want the financial support provided to the nation’s creative industries to be “undone by allowing local creators to be victims of online piracy”.

“Online piracy is theft,” he said. “Downloading or streaming a pirated movie or TV show is no different to stealing a DVD from a shop.”

The rise of paid streaming services such as Spotify, Netflix and Stan – which offer a relatively cheap way for consumers to legally access music, films and TV shows – have put a dent in the public’s appetite to access piracy websites.

In February, research commissioned by the Australian Screen Association – which lobbies for anti-piracy laws – found visits to piracy websites had fallen by half in a year. It followed the new laws that led to the blocking of websites such as the Pirate Bay.

Separate figures released by the Department of Communication in August found the copyright infringement rates for TV series, movies and music had fallen, but increased slightly for video game piracy.

Google was contacted for comment.