Communications Bill green paper – a censor’s charter?

The Government may be about to propose some misconceived, illiberal and anti-competitive copyright-enforcement policies in a Communications Bill green paper. The Open Rights Group has a briefing up on the proposals and their concerns about them. In summary the suggestion seems to be that UK web-surfers should be prevented from accessing websites that major corporate rights-holders allege are hosting unlicensed content to which they hold the copyright. ISPs would be required to block access to the websites in their entirity, not just to the the content in question, and search engines would be forced to remove whole sites from their indexes too. Payment processing companies and advertising providers may be required to stop doing business with blocked sites. The bill would reduce court oversight and due process in favour of an industry-led self-regulation scheme.

I’ve written to my MP today to ask for his position on the issues raised by the green paper. I’ve also asked that he challenge Ed Vaizey and the Department of Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to open up their opaque round-table discussions on the Bill, which have thus far excluded all but one set of stakeholders. The government is making choices behind closed doors that will effectively carve up digital power between private interests. Citizens and human rights lack representation in this policy-making process yet if we act quickly we can change the direction of this legislation before any politicians have to make a “U-turn”. Why not write to your MP today and make your own views known?

In my opinion, and that of a great many other technical experts, the proposals are risible and cannot hope to achieve their stated objective of reducing illicit online file-sharing. Meanwhile they will cost billions to implement – costs that will be passed on to householders and businesses – and will reserve to a few corporations monopoly control over our online experience. (I suspect this last point is the real objective of the legislation!) The Government seems to think the world-wide web is a content distribution system, similar to television, whereas in fact it’s a communications network like the Royal Mail or the telephone. It is nonsensical to try to regulate the latter class of systems in the same way as the former. Imagine how daft Ed Vaizey would sound if he proposed steaming open all our letters to check whether we’re sharing photos in violation of copyright law, or tapping everyone’s phone calls to ensure we’re not using trademarked phrases in a way that might mislead our audiences!

Perhaps the worst effect of these proposals would be the extent to which they would violate our right to privacy and freedom of expression. Automatic censorship requires surveillance, because ISPs and search engines would have to examine every webpage request we make in order to check whether we’d asked for one of the blocked sites, which would be a gross invasion of privacy. Secondly, since filtering systems are notoriously inaccurate, the owners and users of many legitimate websites would have their speech censored arbitrarily. Redress for this might prove difficult to obtain since the proposals include replacing court oversight and due process with industry-led self-regulation.

The Open Rights Group have been trying to participate in the round-table discussions being held by DCMS yet it seems their views are not welcome there. I understand they were involved initially but have been excluded subsequently. In order that we can all trust and rely on the resulting legislation the DCMS must commit to a more open and transparent process from now on. How does Mr. Vaizey intend to ensure public confidence in the Government’s copyright enforcement regime? Will he commit to setting out a clear consultation process, being transparent about with whom the DCMS is meeting and in what capacity, and ensuring that all stakeholders receive a fair hearing? Will he end the private round-table discussions that prioritise one set of stakeholders and invite organisations such as ORG to participate again? Will he commit to basing copyright policy on evidence not industry spin? Enquiring netizens need to know!

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