Lords’ web-blocking amendment: I’m not a fan

A flurry of emails and Twitter messages have reached me about the latest Lords amendment to the Digital Economy Bill.

The amendment, tabled by two LibDem peers with Tory support, would allow the High Court to issue injunctions to ISPs to block sites for copyright infringement.

I am not an instinctive pirate. I spent a decade working as a librarian, including managing the library’s compliance with copyright (not the best bit of the job); for the last decade I’ve been working for a software house that supplies highvalue proprietary software. I believe in protecting intellectual property, I believe there is an important role for patents and copyright – but I still don’t like the amendment.

Firstly because the power to seek and use injunctions is much more likely to be used by those already powerful (as with libel law). We all know of cases where honest critical reporting has been crushed by a libel allegation from the rich and well-connected, and the alleged libeller has been unable to afford to contest it.

Secondly because the power – to block whole sites – is too broad: the blocking should be of individual pieces of content. Otherwise any site with user-generated content is at risk. I don’t want Facebook to close because someone, somewhere, uploads a photo they like but is copyright to someone else….

And thirdly because, as others have argued, this is likely to cause self-censorship for fear of being fined, which is a fundamentally bad thing in a liberal society.

It may be a well-intentioned attempt to soften Labour legislation but its effects are bad. I also think it’s bad politics. Most people don’t care about this issue and those who do know and care about it think this amendment is totally wrong!

LibDem Lords have a great track record, with lots of examples of good amendments to lousy laws; this is not one of them. I think both Tims are good eggs, but wrong on this issue.

I was debating this issue online with Lib Dem supporter Cory Doctorow who first raised the issue with me and who mailed me the following (and, I hasten to add, has given me permission to reproduce his words :-))

“As a publisher, bestselling novelist, and owner of a
commerically successful copyright business, I certainly believe in
copyright.

“But a national Internet censorship regime is not beneficial to the cause of copyright or of creators. It is ripe for abuse, it is
disproportionate, and it will be ineffective at preventing infringement
(China’s example is productive here: their national censorware strategy
has absolutely failed to prevent dissident information from spreading
through the country, but it has nevertheless given government a suite of abusive authoritarian tools with nightmarish consequences).

“Britain should not join the ranks of countries with national Internet
censorship regimes: countries such as Syria, Iran and China.

“A parallel to libel law is productive here. Even stipulating that libel
is bad and we should try to stop it, even casual observers can see that UK libel law is doing a lot of harm. Libel claims favor the rich and
powerful over their critics, who are forced to bear the expense of
proving that they have not violated the law.

“As bad as the state of libel law is, we wouldn’t improve it by
empowering judges to force every single ISP in the country to block
websites where a libel has been alleged to occur.

“By the same token, copyright is often useful and productive, but
copyright claims favour the party with the deepest pockets. This has
already had many bad effects on speech and expression. Adding the power to force every ISP in the land to block access to sites where an
infringement is alleged will make things worse, not better.”

5 Comments »

  1. There are two possibilities for those proposing the amendment:

    1) They had been nobbled – convinced it was more liberal than allowing Mandelson the freedom to tweak copyright law, by those who knew full well how far more illiberal it actually was – a poisoned chalice.

    2) They knew they could kill the fundamentally illiberal DEBill by exchanging a contentious clause for something particularly draconian, so draconian the bill would never see daylight – a reverse poisoned chalice.

    In both cases one trusts the LibDems will collect on any favours promised in exchange for proposing the amendment…

    Frankly, I doubt the favours will exceed the disillusionment the amendment has engendered. You know how important the Internet denizens were to helping Obama win the presidency, e.g. via Twitter, etc. The LibDems were well set to achieve the same support, by people (not publishing corporations), people conversant with the anachronisms of 18th century privileges such as copyright, and iniquitous libel laws protecting the rich and powerful from defamation by the wealthy press (not bloggers of modest means such as yourself).

    The only hope for the LibDems is that the DEBill does indeed die, and they can claim this was all part of their cunning ploy – to make a last minute amendment to achieve such an outcome. But that’s a bit of a long shot isn’t it?

  2. ceedee said

    Great summary, Bridget. Thank you!

  3. I *am* an instinctive Pirate. There’s a place for copyright, but it needs /weakening/ right now, not strengthening.

    The bill is so awful that it’s hard to imagine it being made worse, I guess technically one draconian power may be better than the power to make up new draconian powers on the spot.

    Don’t think that it shows a shining commitment to liberty though. Fingers crossed that Mandy and friend’s whole rushed bill won’t get through before the election.

  4. I’m not just an instinctive Pirate, I’m leader of the Pirate Party UK.

    It’s good to know that there is at least one voice of reason in the Lib Dem ranks who is prepared to stand up against this ill thought out amendment. Let’s hope that after the next election we hear more from the likes of Bridget Fox and Tom Watson, and less from Lords Mandelson and Clement Jones.

  5. […] wasn’t happy and decided to put a posting on this blog so I could point other constituents to my position; I put that up on Thursday morning and linked to it on Twitter. I also encouraged Cory to […]

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