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File sharing sites like the Pirate Bay may become more difficult to access within Australia as early as this year. Prime Minister Tony Abbott's Federal Cabinet will be looking at two proposals to crack down on online piracy, possibly this week.

The first proposal would force ISPs to send out warning letters to alleged file-sharers, while other legislation will mean sites such as The Pirate Bay, which facilitate illegal downloading, would be blocked by local Internet service providers, who in the past have fought in court against such a move.

The Abbott government has promised to make ‘‘significant’’ changes to Australia’s copyright laws as a first-term commitment, though Attorney-General George Brandis has said that he may implement a ‘voluntary’ industry code of practice.

Some ISPs, most notably iiNet, have in the past vehemently fought any move to force them to regulate what users download.

But Brandis has argued that ISPs ‘‘need to take some responsibility’’ for illegal downloading, because they ‘‘provide the facility which enables this to happen’’. By that logic, Australia Post could be held liable for the content of the letters sent through it, but that does not appear to be part of his proposals.

Meanwhile the Labor Party told Fairfax Media it would examine any policy proposal put forward but the Government was yet to ‘‘put forward a coherent policy proposal.” Labor also has a record of wanting to restrict the use of copyrighted content.

Australians are the among the most active illegal downloaders in the world, with stats from file-sharing monitor TorrentFreak showing that 11.6% of all global illegal downloads of Season 3 of Game of Thrones came from Australia, by far the highest per-capita piracy rate of any country.

Many blame this on the lack of content available legally here. Sites like Netflix have not launched in Australia, and free-to-air broadcasters are generally still slower to air new series than Foxtel, for example. Many viewers are driven to illegal content because of the unavailability of an alternative.

Australia's second-largest ISP, Perth-based iiNet, has already rejected both government proposals as costly and ineffective. ''We do not support graduated response schemes or blocking websites,'' iiNet's chief regulatory officer Steve Dalby said in February.

''They are pointless, cost-generating proposals with no benefit. The content industry says copyright infringement costs them thousands of millions of dollars a year yet they are not prepared to fund this work.''

Meanwhile Andrew Maiden, CEO of ASTRA (Australian Subscription Television and Radio Association), the industry body for pay TV, told Mumbrella that the legislative changes required to effect the above could be brought in as early as mid or late June this year.

“They have already made commitments to take action against piracy so I would think they would want to act sooner rather than later,” Maiden said.

One problem for legislators, including Brandis, is that Australian Internet users have already become savvy at using VPN and proxy services to access legal services such as Netflix. The same techniques could be used to access sites like The Pirate Bay, even if ISPs are forced to block them.

The sorts of people who know how to download content from sources like The Pirate Bay are just the sort of people who know how to implement such technology.

The measures being proposed by Brandis bear a strong resemblance to those being implemented in the US. There is speculation that Brandis is being strongly influenced by the US copyright industry, which is attempting to promote its own rigid version of copyright in other countries.

Indeed, if Brandis’s proposals are adopted, Australia may have more stringent rules than the US, because we lack the ‘fair use’ provisions of American copyright law. He has not proposed fines for users who download content, a practice which proved a PR disaster for the copyright industry when it was tried in the US.

Online newsletter Crikey yesterday pointed out that Brandis’s chief of staff, Paul O’Sullivan, is a strong adherent of Australia falling into line with US practices. He is a former head of ASIO and High Commissioner (ambassador) to New Zealand – very senior positions from which to become a chief of staff.

Crikey speculates that not only is O’Sullivan the real driving force behind the more stringent copyright regime, but also that he may himself be seeking office, and is learning the political ropes working for Brandis before trying for preselection to the House or Senate.

Whatever the case, it seems another battle is about to be fought in the long war between the pros and cons of copyright protection.

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David Swan

David Swan is a tech journalist from Melbourne and is iTWire's Associate Editor. Having started off as a games reviewer at the age of 14, he now has a degree in Journalism from RMIT (with Honours) and owns basically every gadget under the sun. He also writes for Junkee and Fasterlouder. You can email him at david.swan@itwire.com or follow him at twitter.com/mrdavidswan

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