Content Cafe


The internet – not an ungoverned space

by Mitch Fifield

Tonight, I’d like to look forward and talk about the future of the internet and the role of government in that space.

The internet has fundamentally reshaped our economy and our society. I can still remember the first time I heard about ‘the web’ from a computer scientist in about 1993. I thought to myself “This thing will never catch on…” Twenty-five years later, I’m the Minister for it!

The internet has unleashed innovation, underpinned economic growth, and connected individuals and communities in ways we couldn’t imagine a few decades ago.

My computer scientist friend in 1993 described the web as ‘chaos’ and ‘freedom’. And for the first decade or two of the internet, that’s pretty much how regulators, governments and platforms viewed it.

But there has been a fundamental change in thinking over the last five to eight years on the part of the community and government.

The internet is no longer seen as an ungoverned space or as a libertarian ‘free-for-all’. So it’s important to recognise what the internet is not. It’s not the ‘wild west’, where the rule of law and standards of decency shouldn’t apply. And it’s not a place, where anything goes.

It’s a shared space, and all Australians should be able to participate online and reap the benefits of a globalised world without experiencing offensive or harmful content.

There’s a clear role for the Government and industry to work together to ensure the interests of our community are protected, supported and promoted in the online environment, just as they are elsewhere.

Laws and norms should apply in the virtual world just as they do in the physical world. This is increasingly being seen in tax law, copyright law, competition law, criminal law, civil law and privacy law.

Creative and cultural content is increasingly digitised and made available in the online space. This is a positive thing – it makes content more widely available, particularly for regional and rural communities.

Creators can also find audiences and build their profiles directly with the public in ways that have not been possible in the past.

The online environment also provides enormous opportunities for news publishers, broadcasters, film studios and other content producers to reach new audiences and expand their businesses.

But there are challenges. Our focus is ensuring our creative industries – our film producers, broadcasters and publishers – can compete on a level playing field.

A major focus in this space has been combating piracy. The Australian film and television industry deserves major credit for tackling two of the biggest drivers of piracy – attitudes and availability.

I pay tribute to industry leaders like Village Roadshow’s Graham Burke, who have campaigned long and hard to change community attitudes about copyright piracy.

Let’s be clear – piracy is theft. Downloading an illegal copy of a movie or a TV show is no different to walking into JB HiFi and swiping a DVD off the shelves. In both cases, those who have invested their capital and time into producing a creative work are left unremunerated for their work.

The industry has also taken steps to ensure that content is made available to Australians in a timely manner and at reasonable prices. This has reduced the incentive for people to engage in piracy when you can, for example, watch the latest episode of Game of Thrones at the same time as the rest of the world and for a modest subscription fee.

But Government has a role to play too. Online piracy will never be eliminated, but we can make life harder for the pirates. And we owe it to those who have had a go at a creative enterprise to back them with assistance to secure their property rights.

One initiative introduced by this Government has been the website blocking scheme in the Copyright Act. Where a website’s primary purpose is copyright infringement – a site like The Pirate Bay for example – rights holders can bring action in the Federal Court to seek orders that Internet Service Providers block access to it.

Such a scheme understandably made some people initially uncomfortable. We certainly don’t want to become a nation in which the Government blocks access to web content it doesn’t like.

But where a site exists purely to facilitate piracy, and with judicial oversight playing a crucial role, the website blocking scheme has been very successful in further reducing copyright infringement. And if there are further enhancements to this scheme, we are open to them.

If we are to continue to have successful and vibrant creative industries in Australia, we must support that investment by doing what we can to prevent theft of these works.

This is essential if we want Australian voices to be heard and Australian stories to be told – not only in Australia, but also abroad.

So where to from here? In December, the ACCC will release the draft report of its inquiry into Digital Platforms. This was a reference given to the ACCC by Government last year as part of media reform. The report will consider the impact of digital platforms on competition, advertising, news and journalistic content, and the implications for consumers, including privacy.

There is a view that regulation should be updated to keep up to date with changes to the market, and to level the playing field for both digital platforms and traditional media organisations.

The ACCC’s work will provide us with a wider and deeper perspective. And it will be an important input into this debate to ensure our policy and regulatory settings strike the right balance in a contemporary global media environment

Senator Mitch Fifield is the Minister for Communications and the Arts. The above is an excerpt from an address he gave at the Sydney Institute this week. Read the full text here.