Despite all the evidence to the contrary rights holders are able to convince governments around the world that piracy is a problem best faced with legislation rather than outright competition. It’s been shown time and time again that access to a reasonably priced legitimate service results in drastic reductions in the rates of piracy and, funnily enough, increased revenue for the businesses that adopt this new strategy. Australia had been somewhat immune to the rights lobby’s ploys for a while, with several high court rulings not finding in their favour. However our current government (and, unfortunately, the opposition) seems more than happy to bend to the whims of this group with their most recent bow coming in the form of a website blocking bill.
The bill itself clocks in at a mere 9 pages with the explanatory notes not going much further. Simply put it provides a legislative avenue for rights holders to compel ISPs to block access to sites that hold infringing material through the use of a court injunction. How that blocking should be done isn’t mentioned at all, nor is there any mention of recourse activities that a site can undertake to have themselves unblocked should they find themselves a target of an injunction. Probably the only diamond in this pile of horseshit of legislation is the protection that ISPs get from costs born out of this process, but only if they choose not to fight any injunction that may be placed upon them. However all of that is moot when compared to the real issue at hand here.
It’s just not going to fucking work.
As I wrote last year when Brandis and co were soliciting ideas for this exact legislation no matter what kind of blocking the ISPs employ (which, let’s be honest here, will be the lowest and most painless form of blocking they can get away with) it will be circumvented instantly by anyone and everyone. The Australian government isn’t the first government to engage in wholesale blocking of sites and so solutions to get around them are plentiful, many of them completely free to access. Hell with a very healthy amount of VPN usage in Australia already most people already have a method by which to cut the ISPs completely out of the picture, rendering any action they take completely moot.
The big problem that I, and many others, have with legislation like this is that it sets a bad precedent that could be used to justify further site blocking policies down the line. It doesn’t take much effort to take this bill, rework it to target other objectionable content and then have that pushed through parliament. Sure, we can hope that the process means that such policies won’t make it through due to the obvious chilling effects that it might have, however this legislation faced no opposition from either of the major parties so it follows that future ones could see just as slim opposition. Worst still there’s almost no chance that it will ever be repealed as no government ever wants to give up power it’s granted itself.
In the end this is just another piece of evidence to show that our current government has a fundamental lack of understanding of technology and its implications. The bill is worthless, a bit of pandering to the rights lobbyists who will wield it with reckless abandon which will fail it achieve its goals from day one. Already there are numerous sites telling users how to circumvent it and there is absolutely no amount of legislation that can be passed to stop them. All we can hope for now is that this doesn’t prove to be the first step on a slippery slope towards larger scale censorship as the Great Firewall of Australia begins to smoulder.
For us Australians the reasons behind our high rates of piracy are clear: we want the same things that people are able to get access to overseas at the same prices that they receive them for yet we are unable to get them. Our situation has been steadily improving over the past couple years with many notable international services now being available on our shores however we’re still the last on the list for many things, fuelling further piracy. Of course this has prompted all sorts of reactions from rights holder groups hoping to stem the tide of piracy in the misguided hope that it will somehow translate into sales. The latest volley comes in the form of the Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) 2015 which, yet again, attempts to address the issue in the dumbest way possible.
Essentially the amendment would empower rights holders to get an injunction against Carriage Service Providers (a broader term that encompasses all telecommunications providers) to block access to a site that either infringes on copyright or enables infringement. The amendment starts out by saying it’s prescriptive however the language used in it is anything but, often painting broad strokes which could conceivably be construed as being applicable to a wide range of sites and services, even VPNs in some cases. Whilst there are provisions in there that are supposed to prevent misuse and abuse much of it is left up to the discretion of the court with very little recourse for sites that find themselves blocked as part of it.
To be clear the legislation targets foreign sites only but makes no strict provisions for the site being targeted to be notified that they are facing an injunction. That’s left to the party seeking the injunction to do, something which I’m sure no rights holders will attempt to do. Whilst the law does say that this law isn’t meant to target sites that are mostly based on user generated content however it’s clear that the intention is to go after index sites, many of which are primarily based on user submissions. This puts the legislation at odds with the current safe harbor provisions which could see a site blocked due to a number of users submitting things which put it in the realms of “aiding infringement”.
Of course whatever blocking method is used will be readily circumvented, as it has always been in the past.
The rhetoric that’s surrounding this amendment is worse still, with the CEO of ARIA saying things like “We’ve made the content available at a reasonable price [but] piracy hasn’t diminished”. Funnily enough that’s a pretty easy thing to verify (or rebuke, as the case is) and last year Spotify did just that and found that music piracy, in Australia specifically, has been on the downward trend ever since the music streaming services came to our shores. Strangely enough Australians aren’t a bunch of nasty pirates who will repeatedly pillage the rights holder’s pockets, we’re just seeking a legitimate service that’s priced appropriately. If the rights holders spent as much money on deploying those services here in Australia as they did lobbying for copyright reform they might find their efforts better rewarded, both monetarily and in the form of good will.
Hopefully this amendment gets shot down before it becomes reality as it would do nothing to help the rights holder’s situation and would just be another burden on the Australian court system. It’s been shown time and time again that providing Australians with the same services that are available overseas will reduce piracy rates significantly and that draconian ideas like this do nothing to stem the tide of illegitimate content. The companies that are realising this are the ones that are killing the old media giants and things like this are just the last death throes of an outdated business model that is no longer relevant in today’s digital economy.
Why the Abbott government hasn’t abandoned their incredibly unpopular metadata policy yet is beyond me. Nearly all other developed nations that have pursued such a policy have abandoned it, mostly because attempting to pass something like this is akin to committing political suicide. Worse still in their attempts to defend the policy from its critics the Abbott government has resorted to tactics and sensationalist rhetoric, none of which has any bearing on the underlying issues that this policy faces. Top this off with a cost estimation that seems to be based on back of the napkin math and you’ve got a recipe for bad legislation that will likely be implemented poorly and at a great cost to all Australian citizens.
Conceptually the idea is simple: the government wants to mandate that all ISPs and communications providers keep all metadata they generate for a period of 2 years. Initially this was sold as not being an increase in the power that authorities had however that idea is incredibly misleading as it greatly increases their ability to exercise that power. Worse still obtaining access to metadata doesn’t require a warrant and isn’t just the realm of law enforcement or intelligence agencies as people on local councils can obtain this data. Suffice to say that the gathering and retention of this data is a massive invasion of the privacy that the general public expects to have from its government and that is exactly why nearly all developed nations have dropped such policies before they’ve been implemented.
As expected the usual tropes for these kinds of policies have been trotted out, initially under the guise of a requirement for national security. I’d concede that point if it wasn’t for the fact that mass surveillance has not proved to be effective in combating terrorism, something which the critics of the policy were quick to point out. The rhetoric has then shifted away from national security to local security with Abbott saying that the metadata will help them track down peadophiles and child traffickers. Suffice to say if surveillance of this nature doesn’t help at a national level then I highly doubt its effectiveness at the lower levels and “think of the children” arguments like this are nothing more than an appeal to emotion.
Yesterday Abbott was pressed to give some hard figures on just how much this scheme would end up costing and he retorted with the rather ineloquent quip that it would be an “explosion in an unsolved crime“. When pressed the figure he gave was $300 million, estimated to be less than 1% of the total $40 billion that the entire telecommunications sector is estimated to be worth. That figure has apparently been sourced from PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) however the details of that figure have not been made public. In all honesty I cannot see how that figure can be accurate given the amount of data we’re talking about and the retention times required.
To put it in perspective Australians consumed something on the order of 1 Exabyte in 6 months up to June last year which is a 50% increase on the year previous. The amount of metadata on that data would be a fraction of that and, taking the same 1% liberty that Abbott seems intent on using, you get something like 50 Petabytes worth of storage required. Couple that with the fact that it won’t be stored in one place (negating economies of scale), the infrastructure requirements to provide access to it and the personnel required to fullfil requests and that $300 million figure starts to look quite shakey. Indeed the Communications Alliance in Australia has estimated it to be between $500 million and $700 million which casts doubt over how accurate Abbott’s lowball figure is.
Honestly this legislation stinks no matter which way you cut it and the rhetoric that the incumbent government has been using to defend it speaks directly to that. These policies are just simply not effective in what they set out to achieve and the only tangible result we’ll ever see from them will be an increased cost to accessing the Internet and a reduction in the expectation of privacy. I do hope Abbott keeps harping on about it though as the more he talks the more it seems likely that we’ll be able to cement the One Term Tony phrase in the history books.
It’s undeniable that the freewheeling nature of the Internet is behind the exponential growth that it has experienced. It was a communications platform that was unencumbered by corporate overlords, free from gatekeepers that enabled people around the world to communicate with each other. However the gatekeepers of old have always tried to claw back some semblance of control at every point they can by imposing data caps, premium services and charging popular websites a premium to give their customers preferred access. Such things go against the pervasive idea of Net Neutrality that is a core tenant of the Internet’s strength however the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in the USA is looking to change that.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has announced today that they will be seeking to classify Internet services under their Title II authority which would see them regulated in such a way as to guarantee the idea of net neutrality, ensuring open and unhindered access. The rules wouldn’t just be limited to fixed line broadband services either as Mr Wheeler stated this change in regulation would also cover wireless Internet services. The motion will have to be voted on before it can be enacted in earnest (and there’s still the possibility of Congress undermining it with additional legislation) however given the current makeup of the FCC board it’s almost guaranteed to pass which is a great thing for the Internet in the USA.
This will go a long way to combatting the anti-competitive practices that a lot of ISPs are engaging in. Companies like Netflix have been strong armed in the past into paying substantial fees to ISPs to ensure that their services run at full speed for their customers, something which only benefits the ISP. Under the Title II changes it would be illegal for ISPs to engage in such behaviour, ensuring that all packets that traverse the network were given the same priority. This would then ensure that no Internet based company would have to pay ISPs to ensure that their services ran acceptably which is hugely beneficial to Internet based innovators.
Of course ISPs have been quick to paint these changes in a negative light, saying that with this new kind of regulation we’re likely to see an increase in fees and all sorts of things that will trash anyone’s ability to innovate. Pretty much all of their concerns stem from the fact that they will be losing revenue from the deals that they’ve cut, ones that are directly in competition with the idea of net neutrality. Honestly I have little sympathy for them as they’ve already profited heavily from investment from the government and regulation that ensured competition between ISPs was kept at a minimum. The big winners in all of this will be consumers and open Internet providers like Google Fiber, things which are the antithesis to their outdated business models.
Hopefully this paves the way for similar legislation and regulation to make its way around the world, paving the way for an Internet free from the constraints of its corporate overlords. My only fear is that congress will mess with these provisions after the changes are made but hopefully the current incumbent government, who has gone on record in support of net neutrality, will put the kibosh on any plans to that effect. In any case the future of the Internet is looking brighter than it ever has and hopefully that trend will continue globally.
Copyright law in Australia isn’t as cut and dry as many believe it to be. Whilst some of our laws are in line with what the general public thinks they are (I.E. United States based) there’s a lot of things that are more draconian, like the lack of safe harbor provisions, and others that are a lot more lax like the lack of any formal infringement notification systems. This has often been cited as one of the main reasons why piracy is so rampant in Australia although that’s really only a minor part of the equation. Still this hasn’t stopped rights holders from lobbying members of our parliament into getting the laws changed and a recently leaked discussion paper, from the offices of Senator Brandis and Minister Turnbull, showcases a rather disturbing future for Australian copyright.
The discussion paper reads as a wish list of measures that rights holders would like to see implemented that would be used to curb copyright infringement behaviour within Australia, taking inspiration from similar schemes overseas. The proposed measures will be familiar to anyone who’s been involved in the copyright debate ranging from requiring ISPs to take “reasonable action” against infringing users (something our High Court has ruled against in the past), blocking websites that facilitate infringement and the measures required to support those processes. There are some potential positive questions for discussion in there, like the expansion of safe harbor provisions, but the rest of them will only cause more headaches than they will solve.
The first discussion point around ISP’s taking “reasonable steps” towards discouraging users from engaging in copyright infringement is a blatant attempt to skirt around the high court’s previous ruling that there are no such steps that an ISP can take. Essentially it comes down to a question of liability as increasing the exposure that the ISPs have make them a better target for litigation than the thousands of individuals beneath them do. The worst thing about this is that it will most certainly lead to increased costs for consumers with no benefits for anyone but the rights holders themselves. Honestly this smacks of the “mandatory voluntary” system that Conroy proposed, and then swiftly abandoned, all those years ago. If it didn’t work then I fail to see how it could work now.
The second point revolves around blocking some sites outright which they’re proposing to do at the ISP level. Now the paper doesn’t go into details about how the site would be blocked, just that injunctions could be granted, however we know that whatever method they use will end up being ineffectual. DNS blacklisting, IP blocks and all other methods that other countries have used in the past simply do not work in an environment with users with a modicum of technical experience. Heck there are dozens of browser extensions which help with this and there’s already a healthy number of Australians completely circumventing any ISP level blocking through the use of VPNs. So realistically the discussion point about what matters should be considered in granting an injunction are moot as it won’t stop the site from being available.
The last 3 points dig into what the impacts will be (both in terms of reducing infringement and the cost to business) as well as asking if there are any alternative measures that can be taken. Honestly I feel these are the points that should be front and center rather than the previous two I mentioned as this is the real crux of the copyright issue in Australia. In terms of the discussion paper though they feel like afterthoughts, each given a brief paragraph with a one liner question following them. It really looks like the other points are, essentially, already agreed to and these are just there to placate those who feel that they need to have their voice heard.
What this discussion paper completely misses is the real issue here: the lack of content systems that are on the same level available overseas. The Australian tax is no longer just catch cry, it’s a fact, and the residents of this country have voted with their wallets. Indeed the high use of Netflix within Australia shows that we’re ready, willing and able to pay for the services should rights holders be willing to provide them but instead this paper wants to focus on the stick rather than the carrot.
If Brandis and Turnbull are serious about copyright reform in Australia they should be looking into what they can do to encourage those services to come Australia rather than attempt to dissuade people from pirating their content. History has shown that the latter can never be prevented, no matter what legislation you put in or DRM you attempt to ram down the customer’s throats. The latter has a tried and true history of being successful and I have no doubts that rights holders would see similar success in Australia should they choose to bring their services here. For now though it seems like they’re still stuck in the past, trying to protect business models that are failing in the new Internet powered economy. They’ll have to come around eventually, it’s just a question of whether they do it before someone else does.
Oh wait they already are. Time to wake the fuck up.
My generation has been very vocal about the struggle they have with the high cost of property in Australia. The argument is not without merit with our 2 largest cities often ranking in the top 10 most expensive places in the world to live. Indeed in the past I’ve said that Australian property is out of reach for an average person on a single income although I did conclude that this wasn’t representative of how most Australians buy their homes. Still one target that almost always comes up in discussions around housing affordability is that negative gearing isn’t doing anything to help the situation and its abolishment would lead to cheaper housing everywhere. Whilst I’m sure my vested interest in this topic (I have a negatively geared property, soon to be 2) will likely have most tuning out before this paragraph is over I’d urge you to read on as getting rid of negative gearing, or modifying it in a way you think appropriate, won’t bring prices down like you think they would.
Taken by themselves the numbers around negative gearing do appear to be quite damning. Every year the government doles out about $4 billion worth of tax cuts to people who own negatively geared property, amounting to about 1% of total tax revenue. At the same time data would seem to indicate that investors almost exclusively target established properties something which is at odds with the arguments that investors fund new property development. All this would seem to add up to a situation where investors are locking up existing property stocks which forces potential buyers out of the market. Whilst I’ll admit that negative gearing is a factor in all this it’s by no means the major contributor and making changes to it will likely not have the effects that many desire.
One proposed changes is to limit the number of properties that can be negatively geared to 1, putting a cap on the number of properties investors can draw benefits from. It sounds good in theory as it would put the kibosh on property barons snapping up large swaths of property however the fact is that the vast majority of property investors in Australia, to the tune of 72.8%, own only a single investment property. They in turn account for just over half the total number of investment properties in Australia. So whilst limiting negative gearing to a single property sounds like a good idea it would only affect half of the investment properties in Australia leaving the rest in the same situation as before.
Limiting negative gearing to new construction is an idea I’m on board with as it will more directly address the issue of housing supply rather than pushing investors away from property as an investment class. The one caveat I’d have to put on top of that would be the curtailing of the land agencies from charging exorbitant amounts for new land releases as that could easily erase any gains made from quarantining negative gearing in this fashion. Indeed if you look at just the land prices here in the nationals capital a small, 400m2 block will usually go for $400,000 meaning that even a modest house built there will cost upwards of $550,000. If you want to attract investors to building new properties then this is most certainly an issue that needs to be addressed prior to quarantining negative gearing.
However all of these ideas are flawed when you consider that there’s a much bigger tax break at work here that’s inflating property prices. As I’ve stated many times in the past Australian housing investors are something of a minority, accounting for around 20% of the housing market. Therefore it’s hard to believe that negative gearing is solely responsible for Australia’s house prices as the majority of the market is because of owner occupiers. What I didn’t mention in that previous post is the tax breaks that owner-occupiers receive in the form of exemptions from capital gains tax. Essentially when you sell your primary place of residence you don’t pay any tax on any gains that property may have made while you owned it which puts a strong upward pressure on prices (people want to maximise gains), enabling them to trade up to bigger and better houses.
That sounds fine in principle but it costs taxpayers a staggering $36 billion a year, 9 times that of negative gearing. You wouldn’t even have to abolish this to see savings far in excess of what getting rid of negative gearing would achieve. Instituting a 50% reduction in the capital gains tax payable (like is done currently with shares) for the sale of your primary place of residence would generate $18 billion a year and put a heavy downward pressure on property prices. Hell you could even apply the new construction only exception to this as well, giving people who build new houses something like 5 years worth of capital gains tax free whilst ensuring everyone else paid up. Of course this solution is a little less palatable since it targets everyone and no just those dirty investors but it would be far more effective.
Many will argue that abolishing negative gearing is a good first step towards solving the problem but in all honesty I don’t feel it will have the impact that it’s advocates think it will. Australian investors, whilst being a factor in housing prices, aren’t the major contributor with that responsibility falling to the Australian dream of owning ever bigger and better homes. Fixing the supply issue is a multi-faceted affair and if you want to attract investor dollars to it the solution has to be much more nuanced than simply removing one piece of legislation. You might not like it, hell I don’t like limiting things to new construction but I’ll agree it would work, but we have to face the fact that targeting Australian property investors likely won’t get us very far.
Have you ever read a software patent? They’re laborious things to read often starting out by describing at length their claims and then attempting to substantiate them all with even more colourful and esoteric language. They do this not out of some sick pleasure they get from torturing people who dare to read them but because the harder it is to compare it to prior art the better chance it has of getting through. Whilst a Dynamic Resolution Optimizer Algorithm might sound like something new and exciting it’s quite likely that it’s an image resizer, something that is trivial and has tons of prior art but, if such a patent was granted, would give the owner of it a lot of opportunity to squeeze people for licensing fees.
Indeed this kind of behaviour, patenting anything and everything that can be done in software, is what has allow the patent troll industry to flourish. These are companies that don’t produce anything, nor do they use their patents for their intended purpose (I.E. a time limited monopoly to make use of said patent), and all they do is seek licensing fees from companies based who are infringing on their patent portfolio. The trouble is with the patent language being so deliberately obtuse and vague it’s nigh on impossible for anyone creating software products to not infringe on one of them, especially if they’re granted for things which the wider programming community would believe would be obvious and trivial. It’s for this reason that I and the vast majority of people involved in the creation of software oppose patents like these and it seems finally we may have the beginnings of support from governmental entities.
The New Zealand parliament just put the kibosh on software patents in a 117-4 vote. The language of the bill is a little strange essentially declaring that any computer program doesn’t classify as an invention however any computer application that’s an implementation of a process (which itself can be patented) is patentable. This legislation is also not retroactive which means that any software patents granted in New Zealand prior to its passing will remain in effect until their expiry date. Whilst this isn’t the kind of clean sweep that many of us would have hoped for I think it’s probably the best outcome we could realistically hope for and the work done in New Zealand will hopefully function well as a catalyst for similar legislation to be passed elsewhere.
Unfortunately the place that it’s least likely to happen in is also the place where it’s needed the most: the USA. The vast majority of software patents and their ensuing lawsuits take place in the USA and unfortunately the guaranteed way of avoiding infringement (not selling your software there) means cutting out one of the world’s largest markets. The only way I can see the situation changing there is if the EU passed similar laws however I haven’t heard of them attempting to do anything of the sort. The changes passed in New Zealand might go a ways to influence them along the same lines, but I’m not holding my breath on that one.
So overall this is a good thing however we’re still a long way off from eradicating the evils of software patents. We always knew this would be a long fight, one that would likely take decades to see any real progress in, but the decision in New Zealand shows that there’s a strong desire from the industry for change in this area and people in power are starting to take notice.
It’s no secret that I’m something of a freedom/privacy advocate with this blog’s origins being traced directly to the No Clean Feed movement that started back in 2008. Thankfully I haven’t had to rattle that cage for a long time thanks to the policy being so unbelievably toxic that, whilst it hasn’t been officially killed, has been buried so deep that it should only rear its head again during a future zombie apocalypse. However that doesn’t mean that there hasn’t been other transgressions against our privacy or freedom in recent times however and one such incident is the data retention plan that was mentioned in the “EQUIPPING AUSTRALIA AGAINST EMERGING AND EVOLVING THREATS” discussion paper that was released a few months ago.
I’ve been asked a couple times why I’ve been silent on this particular issue given that it’s on a pretty similar level to the Clean Feed was back in the day and the honest answer was I thought the current media coverage was doing a pretty good job of tearing it apart and I wouldn’t be adding anything meaningful to the discussion. However since the coverage ramped up over the past few weeks I’d been hearing conflicting reports over what the paper actually said, what the clarifications where and what policy based off it would probably look like. After not being able to find much actual analysis on it (mostly just reactions to the paper) I decided that it was high time for me to read through the whole thing and make up my mind for myself.
All 60, enthralling pages of it.
For the most part the discussion paper is pretty mundane sort of stuff, setting up the case for why changes in legislation and increases in governmental powers are required due to technology changing the landscape which ASIO, ASIS and the Australian police forces operate in. Many of the provisions discussed in the paper are expansions of their powers and protections which would make it easier for them to gather evidence and are not straight up translations of old legislation into the technological age. However there’s also some suggested increases in privacy protections as well as the removal of interception powers from some agencies which kind of counter-acts the various increases. Most analyses I’ve read don’t seem to mention this and seem to focus on a particular line that appears twice in the report with very little else around it.
The line in question appears on pages 10 and 13 in the report (in reference to Modernising the Industry Assistance Framework) and reads:
…tailored data retention periods for up to 2 years for parts of a data set, with specific timeframes taking into account agency priorities and privacy and cost impacts.
Taken at face value this suggest that the government is seeking comments on how a data retention policy like this could be implemented in order to help facilitate investigations undertaken by interception agencies. Now there’s literally nothing more on it other than that so the claims that the government wants to mandate that all ISPs retain all your data for 2 years are largely unfounded but such an idea would fit into the description they’ve laid out. Indeed since there’s no other information in the discussion paper about a retention policy any conclusions we draw are purely speculative but there have been some clarifications since its publication which provide a bit more insight into what a data retention policy might end up looking like.
In her clarification video Nicola Roxon states that they’re simply seeking an extension of the current policy which allows law enforcement to acquire the metadata, but not the content, of Internet communications of a person they’re investigating. The issue that most people take here (and so do I after researching this) is that there’s no clear definition of what constitutes metadata, either in the discussion paper itself or anywhere else in Australian law. Clarifying that definition (which has been happening behind the scenes recently) would go a long way to alleviating the concerns that many have raised. I’m still not entirely ok with the idea of storing it for 2 years but if the definition is clarified and the scope limited in a similar fashion to the way it already is for phone calls then I won’t have as much of an issue with it as I do currently.
There was also some talk of law enforcement requiring you to hand over your social networking passwords which I couldn’t find any evidence for. There was a paragraph or two talking about the exemptions for social networks and cloud providers which was seen as a potential weak spot in the proposed reforms however there was no mention of establishing laws to compel people to reveal passwords should they come under investigation. Indeed I believe the current law already covers this off succinctly and all major social networks have been compliant in the past. The line “establish an offence for failure to assist in the decryption of communications” could be construed as requiring you to hand over passwords in order to decrypt volumes which does feel like a violation of self incrimination rights however but I believe there’s no precedent set on that yet. I certainly don’t agree with it, however.
Whilst the ideas that are mentioned in the paper have potentially devastating consequences the reaction to them has been largely overblown. Sure there are interpretations that fall under that definition but there are also others which would make such policies largely benign, especially if you’re ok with the current provisions granted to law enforcement agencies. Clarification is the key here though and that job falls to the Parliamentary Joint Committee on Intelligence and Security who this discussion paper was submitted to. If they do it right many of these concerns will be addressed. If they don’t then I’ll be right along side everyone else, fighting to get the legislation killed before it sees the light of day.
Honestly I feel like the reaction to this paper has been largely overblown fuelled by the passionate, but sometimes over-zealous, individuals at GetUp who have oversold what the potential legislation based off this discussion paper might be capable of. That’s an awful lot of speculation and whilst I don’t like the potential that it represents I’m not about to jump to conclusions until a final policy is tabled in parliament. Once that happens, and should my concerns not be addressed, I’ll do what every Australian should do in that case: write to your representative detailing your concerns. I agree that clarification is required but I don’t believe that warrants stirring up the shit storm that’s been done so far, especially when you take liberal interpretations of it one way and don’t consider the other.
I’ve never been a smoker but I did live with one for the better part of 20 years. My father smoked for about 30 years up until he had a heart attack over a decade ago and that’s a pretty good thing to set everyone straight on the risks of smoking. However I don’t believe it’s my, or anyone else’s business, if people who are fully aware of the risks involved choose to engage that behaviour anyway so long as they’re not harming anyone else in the process. This is why I supported legislation that banned smoking in clubs and in outdoor areas of restaurants as the risk was real and provable then. What I don’t support however is the idea that plain packaging, I.E. olive green packages with bigger warning labels on them, will do anything to lower smoking rates in Australia.
Now I’m fully aware that some people may write me off as a corporate apologist in this regard, I do have a rather lengthy track record of defending certain company’s actions from time to time, but my concerns aren’t the ones that the tobacco companies have brought forward. Whilst I do believe there needed to be some more discussion surrounding the loss of branding potential and the real risk of product counterfeiting my concerns come from the research backing the legislation which, as far as I can tell, don’t really match up with the line that’s being marketed to Australia.
The research from both articles is quite similar so I’ll focus on the systemic review since that’s a much more sound piece of scientific literature. Below is an excerpt showing the review’s aims:
The primary aim of this review is to assess the impact of plain tobacco packaging on the:
1. appeal of the packaging or product;
2. salience and effectiveness of health warnings; and
3. perceptions of product strength and harm.
I’m not going to judge the validity of these research goals, indeed they are interesting points to note, however I feel it’s something of a leap to translate those particular goals into a reduction in of the current rate of smoking. Indeed the main point that the Australian government hammered home with the plain packaging idea was that it would help stop our younger generation from taking up the habit. Looking deeper into the research there’s really nothing in it to support that idea as there was no investigation into the vectors by which youths (and adults) are introduced to tobacco.
The research is also heavily qualitative in nature, which isn’t technically a bad thing, but for the most part it’s also quite comparative. Take for instance the following paragraph relating to product strength and harm:
Perceptions of harmfulness and strength were assessed in several ways, by asking respondents which packs: would deliver the most tar and/or nicotine or would be ‘lighter’ in tar; were a greater risk to health compared to other brands; would be associated with greater or lesser harm; would trigger discussions on harmfulness; inform the smoker about the health effects; and would be more likely to make you think that the cigarettes inside were dangerous.
Whilst this might have shown that people would believe that plain packaged cigarettes were more dangerous to their health than branded ones the research doesn’t show how this would translate into lower smoker incident rates. Indeed much of the research is done in the same manner, with the results being that people found the branded packages more appealing (is that really a surprise?) and that people were more likely to remember the health warnings if they were displayed on a plain package. I’m not disputing these findings, indeed I’m inclined to agree with them, what I’m not getting is how they make the leap to reducing our smoker population.
The argument can be made that if the packaging is less appealing, the health warnings more remembered and the product is thought to be more damaging to their health that these pressures will lead to smokers dropping the habit. You could also argue that it may have some impact on uptake rates as well however the small amount of research into that very idea doesn’t support it. From the systemic analysis again:
Four studies examined the potential impact of plain packs on participants’ own smoking behaviour.
Again the overall pattern is mixed but tends to be supportive of plain packaging having a deterrent
effect on smoking.
It’s statements like the above that really get to me as you can not conclude from mixed results that something is in support of your hypothesis. The only thing you can draw from that is that more research is required to make a proper conclusion, not that it supports your idea. If the conclusion of the study was in fact “we need more research done into this” I’d be much more supportive but instead we’ve got legislation, which is the real issue here.
We’ve had a lot of successful schemes that have helped reduce the number of new and old smokers. Both the health warnings and the ad campaigns on free to air television have a long history of being effective and had good supporting research behind them. Plain packaging on the other hand doesn’t have the same level of evidence to support the conclusion that’s currently being made and fails to investigate critical things like the origins of people’s habits. I would have fully supported a year long trial in order to judge the effectiveness of it and then should the evidence support our hypothesis then we could legislate. However the current approach of taking tangentially related research and then creating policy around that isn’t something I can support and neither should you.
It’s been a long time coming but the first major milestone in getting a R18+ rating for games in Australia has just been hit: the bill has passed the lower house:
Minister for Home Affairs and Minister for Justice Jason Clare today said that an R18+ category for computer games was another step closer today with legislation passing the House of Representatives.
The legislation passed the House of Representatives without amendment and will now move to the Senate for debate in coming weeks.
The reforms bring the classification of computer games into line with existing categories used to classify films. It also makes the Australian classification regime more consistent with international standards.
This is absolutely wonderful news, especially since the bill passed without any amendments to it. This means that the Liberal party has realised that there’s little point in fighting the legislation, especially in light of the parliamentary committee’s recommendations that were handed down just over 2 weeks ago. The next challenge for the bill will be the senate however with the support of Labor and the Greens it’s almost a sure thing that it will pass through there without incident and it will be law before we know it.
The current schedule for implementation has the law coming into effect at January 1st 2013. This is still a while off but it is a required part of the process as once this becomes law all the local governments have to pass accompanying legislation in order to regulate the sale of R18+ games in their state or territory. Unfortunately this means that we’ll could still have the weird double standards like we have for other R18+ material but at the very least it will mean that R18+ games will be available for distribution in Australia.
I’ve been reading some comments on other articles reporting the same news and it seems some people are confused about what the R18+ rating might entail. Whilst there will be a lot of games that will be able to resubmit and hopefully get the R18+ rating it won’t mean that any game that was given the dreaded RC rating will automatically get slapped with R18+. It is up to the publisher or distributer of the game to resubmit it for reclassification and should they not bother to resubmit the game will stay as NC. Additionally the introduction of a R18+ rating does not mean that we won’t see games given the NC rating in the future, only that such occurrences will be far more rare. There are games out there that would still exceed the limits of the R18+ rating but I’ve yet to see one that wouldn’t get NC if it was done in another medium.
It’s been a long, bitter fight to get the Australian government to recognise that the gamer community has matured far beyond what it was when the original classification scheme was produced, but we’re almost there. The success of this grass roots campaign can’t be traced back to one individual or organisation, it’s the cumulative effort of thousands of Australian gamers who rallied behind the cause and forced them to listen. It makes me immensely proud to say that I was a part of this and I’ll be even happier when I finally see it come to pass in less than a year’s time.