Virtual private networks (VPNs) being used by Australians to access geo-blocked content could be caught up in the Government's latest crackdown on internet piracy.
Despite assurances from Communications Minister Malcolm Turnbull that VPNs are not the target of its Copyright Amendment (Online Infringement) Bill 2015, loose wording has plenty worried about how the proposed law might get used.
The bill is intended to allow rights holders to apply for court orders to block "online locations" outside Australia that facilitate piracy or copyright infringement.
Rights holders will have to prove that the "primary purpose of the [online] location is to infringe or facilitate the infringement of copyright".
This is meant to act as a safeguard to ensure the proposed laws "cannot be used to target online locations that are mainly devoted to a legitimate purpose", Turnbull said.
"As an example of this, let us say that we have a legitimate streaming service located in the United States that is streaming content in respect of which it has all of the copyright authority to stream to customers in the United States," he said.
"Let us assume that an Australian was to use a VPN, a virtual private network, to create the impression that they were actually located in the United States so that when the American site saw the IP address they would see a US IP address.
"This Australian could then—and this is widely done—purchase the content in the normal way, with a credit card. This provision does not apply to a site like this."
But not everyone is convinced the safeguard will work as stated.
In particular, the use of broad terms such as "online locations" and "facilitation" in the proposed laws has raised fears that an equally broad range of internet services could find themselves on the wrong end of a blocking order.
The Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) believes VPNs aren't safe.
"There is a risk that rights holders will attempt to use this injunctive power to block VPN websites and limit consumer access to paid content overseas," ACCAN said in a submission to a Senate inquiry on the bill.
"[The Minister's] clarification ... does not extend far enough to protect VPN service websites."
The Australian Digital Alliance (ADA) believes VPNs are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to legitimate sites that could fall foul of the proposed law.
"Sites that may fall under the definition as currently formulated include overseas providers of VPNs, cloud storage providers, providers of Internet Relay Chat (IRC) or BitTorrent software, as well as some general hosting sites that may host a mixture of infringing and non-infringing works," the ADA said.
It also said browser plug-ins, conversion tools, blogs and even "subreddits discussing techniques or sites that may be used to infringe" could become collateral damage.
"The drafting in the Explanatory Memorandum around 'primary purpose' should be tightened by identifying examples of services, such as VPNs, that are not the target of the legislation."
Google Australia agrees.
As an operator of online storage and streaming services, it could find itself in the firing line if those services are used to host pirated content.
"If the Parliament does proceed with a site blocking regime, Google submits that it will be imperative to ensure that the legislation is narrowly targeted so as to avoid legitimate content being blocked, as well as to avoid site blocking being used in ways that were not intended," the web giant said.
Google added that targets of the law should be explained in the law itself, not just in background materials.
"It should not be left to the Explanatory Memorandum to ensure that courts do not construe the term 'online location' in such a way as to block legitimate content."