Ed Vaizey MP, the UK's Minister for Communication, Culture and the Creative Industries, has been hosting discussions for some months about how to take on policy for the creative industries. The main topic under discussion at these roundtables, which primarily involve copyright holders, ISPs and Internet companies such as Google, is a possible website blocking scheme for sites that allegedly facilitate copyright infringement. At issue in these talks are the rules that will govern what people are allowed to do and see online.
If confirmed as genuine, they outline proposals put forward by rights holders as to how such a scheme would work. They describe a 'voluntary' process that involves expedited court procedures with less-than-robust legal oversight, no definition of or evidence for the exact problem being addressed, and no consideration of the technical considerations and consequences of trying to block websites.
Exactly who would make the decisions in the proposed 'expert body' and council about what requires blocking is unclear, as is the role of the court in rubber-stamping those decisions.
It short, the proposals look at best unworkable and at worst, a dangerous and unaccountable infringement of liberty.
The core issue at stake is getting a proper legal framework for such decisions. This concerns more than just the rights of 'sites that facilitate infringement' or those running them. Copyright holders should have the ability to enforce their rights. But this has to happen in a proportionate way, in response to a clearly identified and articulated problem, involve proper due process and be considered in an open and accountable way.
The proposals do not provide the necessary safeguards and due process, failing to add up to transparent, necessary and proportionate measures. There is the risk that the wrong content or legitimate sites would be blocked, with insufficient recourse for those affected when that happens.
Where there is a danger of too much power being given to some interests over what is accessible, and where there are dangers that the wrong content is blocked, there is a tangible affect on what everybody can see online.
The Internet has become one of the primary mechanisms through which people express themselves and organise. The rules that govern the flow of information need to be water tight, fully respecting due process and in doing so respecting everybody's rights to freedom of expression. This is why the UN Special Rapporteur sounded his 'alarm' at measures in his recent report, echoing concerns about how censorship schemes work.
Clumsy, quasi-judicial and unaccountable website blocking is dangerous for exactly that reason. One hardly needs to look far to see examples of why a robust, clear legal framework for any website blocking proposals is crucial to ensure that rights to freedom of expression and access to information are not abused.
Slapdash proposals raise the risk of schemes that create a worrying precedent for how decisions about content blocking will be handled. Internationally, the filtering and blocking of content appears increasingly attractive to those wishing to curtail any democratising potential technology holds.
The UK should be taking a lead in developing responsible Internet policies that set an example to the rest of the world. That can only happen through clear, accountable and proportionate processes through which decisions are made about what all of us are allowed to see and do on the Internet. There is every chance to do so by rooting these proposals in evidence and a respect for due process and fundamental rights.
This is why we at the Open Rights Group asked for rights groups to be involved in the discussions right away. So far the roundtables have largely involved only rightsholders and Internet companies. It was only the most recent meeting that involved a consumer rights representative, Consumer Focus (their response to the blocking proposals they discussed is here. We are unsurprised to see proposals that do not properly take such concerns on board.
We are asking people to write to their MPs to ask them to sign EDM 1913, which calls for the government to take on board what the UN have said and reconsider the Digital Economy Act and its many proposed website blocking schemes.
We hope that as the government considers how to take forward its digital policy making, it draws on the fullest range of expertise and debate. It is not the right to steal music that is at stake, but the principles of freedom of expression that affect everyone.
For Peter Bradwell's previous article on the dangers of web content blocking, click here.