Concerns about FTA rouse IT industry

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Debate, or the lack thereof, about the effect the Australia US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) will have on the local IT sector has government and industry up in arms.

Debate, or the lack thereof, about the effect the Australia US Free Trade Agreement (AUSFTA) will have on the local IT sector has government and industry up in arms.

Pia Smith, president of Linux Australia, said she was "very concerned" about the AUSFTA.

Smith said there had been a lack of public debate and that "it was signed by both leaders (even as a symbolic act) prior to an in-depth investigation of the actual effects on Australia."

However, Edward Mandla, president of the Australian Computer Society (ACS) said that "no IT organisation was able to enter the debate early because [the AUSFTA] was never about IT."

Smith said that not looking into intellectual property (IP) issues within the FTA was an "oversight" by the federal government.

Senator Helen Coonan, Minister for Communications, IT and the Arts, released a statement yesterday entitled "FTA poses no threat to Australia's ICT industry."

In the release she said, "The AUSFTA opens up the massive US Government market to Australian exporters and allows for the continued development of innovative software products, including Australia's burgeoning open source software development industry."

But Smith disagreed, saying that Australia was "a net importer of IP by a factor of 2:1. Introducing more stringent IP protections is simply not in our favour."

Australian Democrats IT spokesperson, Senator Brian Greig,  said in a statement: "Under this FTA, software patents, rigorously enforced anti-circumvention provisions, and increased liability for internet service providers, are a matter of considerable concern."

Smith said that if Australia was to adopt ICT patent laws similar to the US's Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DCMA), this would "assist large incumbent players at the expense of smaller, new players."

She claimed that Australia had a rich culture of open source computing. "The open source phenomenon lowers the barriers to entry for creating and distributing software, encouraging a flood of new contenders and competition, which has increased productivity among its millions of users."

When asked if he thought large software giants would stifle open source development in Australia, Mandla said that he couldn't see that happening.

"At the end of the day [companies] still have to go through rigid criteria [for patents and trademarks] -- that doesn't change."

Coonan said, "The AUSFTA will not have an effect on Australia's current approach and treatment of applications to patent computer software nor will it affect Australian open source software producers."

A release from Shadow Minister for Sport and Recreation, the Arts and Information Technology, Senator Kate Lundy, said a Senate inquiry found the FTA did impose the US patents system on Australia.

She outlined concerns that in a scenario where "anti-competitive bullying through the threat of litigation" became common practice, "small Australian software companies and individual open source developers don't stand a chance."

Mandla said that, while the ACS hadn't developed a position on the AUSFTA, his personal view was that "it's done, and we have to be optimistic that it's good for Australia.

"[The ACS's] focus is now on other countries, making FTAs with them and getting the right deals. Malaysia and China -- that's where it's important because intellectual property and trademarks don't have the same values there, [so] we have to be on the front foot."

Lundy stated that another area of concern was that the FTA would create new criminal offences in Australia "in relation to circumvention devices and how Australians can create and use alternative technology to play DVDs and the terms by which Australians can copy purchased DVDs for their own private use."

Smith raised similar concerns and said she was also worried about users being put at criminal risk, citing the FTA's clause that made the use of multi-zone DVDs an offence.

She said the government had agreed to an exception on this, "but that exception has to be renewed every year -- if it's allowed to lapse a large company could decide to prosecute users [of multi-zone DVDs] in the interests of stifling competition."


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