The Internet Industry Association is fuming over a potential tightening of broadcasting legislation that could send investors bust if online media streaming is deemed illegal without a broadcasting licence.
The executive director of the IIA, Peter Coroneos, believes the bulk of the internet industry will face "substantial damage" if streamed audio and video content via the internet are defined as broadcasting services in an upcoming federal ministerial review.
Companies with investments in fixed assets like underground cabling were at high risk of "dead" returns if the review worked against their favour, Coroneos said.
He estimated total industry loss would sit between $5 billion and $10 billion, comprising Telstra's and Optus' investment in cable rollout, the industry's stake in rich internet content, and e-commerce infrastructure like broadband and satellite technology.
"As people digest the implications of last week's law and the statements surrounding it, there is a slow and chilling realisation that their investments may become worthless," Coroneos said.
"I can't even get my head around how big this would be," he lamented. "Exasperated is too tame a term to describe how we're feeling. We're incredulous.
"Our advice to everyone is to wait, hold up and stop everything."
Coroneos felt the IIA had good reason to issue the blanket warning, given that investors could be waiting for up to 18 months to know if online content could be streamed without a licence.
IIA members are not only heeding the organisation's warnings to withhold from investing in internet streaming content or broadband until January 1, 2002 -- the review deadline -- but preparing to scout overseas markets for business, according to Coroneos. "Members are ready to go offshore now," he said, "even Israel and the Asia-Pacific -- anywhere but Australia."
Coroneos said the only sign of the direction the review would take was the government's power to interpret whether streamed audio and video content via the internet could be regarded as broadcasting activities. "Definitions are everything," he said.
Meanwhile, the office of federal IT minister Senator Alston has invited the IIA to discuss the legislation when Alston returns from holiday in a fortnight, Coroneos said.
However, Coroneos was pessimistic about the prospect of a pre-review meeting. "The review is cast in legislation," he said. "I'm not sure what Alston could say to us that could change our view. We're all a bit cynical about how this is going."
Coroneos feared the review could become politicised if it fell into the hands of the Liberal government's administration, rather than being overseen by an independent body such as the Australian Broadcasting Authority.
"There is no indication that this review will be independent," Coroneos maintained. "It could be satisfied by the minister directing his own department to hold the review."