Australians Should Be Allowed To Circumvent Geoblocking: Productivity Commission

Australian consumers should be allowed to use technologies like VPNs and proxies to defeat the efforts of companies like Netflix and HBO that stop them from accessing digital content libraries from other countries. That's the thrust of a Productivity Commission draft report into overhauling Australia's existing copyright laws that has just been released.

Netflix image via Shutterstock

One among many of the recommendations in the Productivity Commission report, released overnight, is that the Australian federal government should adopt the Australia Tax inquiry's recommendation that it be made clear it is not illegal for consumers to circumvent geoblocking.

The Australian Government should make clear that it is not an infringement of Australia’s copyright system for consumers to circumvent geoblocking technology and should seek to avoid international obligations that would preclude such practices.

Geoblocking is specifically targeted, in a recommendation titled "Making it easier for users to access legitimate content" -- mentioning movies, TV shows and games. It says the best approach to addressing Australian consumers' concerns is making access to this copyrighted content both timely and cost-effective, and chief in that is making it easy for Australians to access media from around the world.

Geoblocking restricts a consumer’s access to digital products, enabling rights holders and intermediaries to segment the Internet into different markets and charge different prices (or offer different services) to consumers based on their location.    The use of geoblocking technology is pervasive, and frequently results in Australian consumers being offered a lower level of digital service (such as a more limited music or TV streaming catalogue) at a higher price than in overseas markets. Studies show Australian consumers systematically pay higher prices for professional software, music, games and e-books than consumers in comparable overseas markets. While some digital savvy consumers are able to avoid these costs (such as through the use of proxy servers and virtual private networks), many are relegated to paying inflated prices for lower standard services.

Using Game of Thrones as an example to illustrate the Productivity Commission's statements, Australians' only option to legitimately access the show in a timely manner is Foxtel's minimum $30 per month offer -- but US residents can access HBO Now for $US15 per month. "Australians are paying more", in the blunt words of the report.

Netflix's US content library is three times the size of Australia's, with 6000 shows versus the local service's 2000. Australians can access the streaming service's international libraries when travelling abroad, with the US, Canada and Argentina featuring the largest content directories.

The report also suggests that Australia should steer clear of any other countries' attempts to ban or criminalise geoblocking. Australia holds broad free trade agreements with China, Korea, Japan and the US, which obligates our government to recognise and ratify some laws -- especially in the case of copyright and intellectual property.

The Australian Government should seek to avoid any international agreements that would prevent or ban consumers from circumventing geoblocking technology.

The Productivity Commission report also explores and recommends changes to the default term of copyright duration for dramatic, musical and artistic works, The report says that Australia's copyright law is generally skewed too heavily towards copyright owners' interests, at the cost of consumers and general users' interests.

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