Saturday, 21 November 2009

Pirate Finder General

Yesterday it emerged via Cory Doctorow's boing boing blog that the UK government is planning to introduce some radical changes to the Digital Economy bill that will seek to combat copyright infringement in a most aggressive manner. One of the consequences of these changes is a serious threat to democracy in that the Secretary of State (currently Lord Mandelson) will have the power to make "secondary legislation" (legislation that is passed without debate) to amend the provisions of Copyright, Designs and Patents Act (1988).

Effectively, this would give an unelected official the power to do anything without Parliamentary oversight or debate, provided it was done in the name of protecting copyright - something which benefits big business in cases where only around 2% of copyrighted products are worth supporting in law (98% of copyrighted material is no longer supported by the market but is still covered by the blanket law). This is clearly a case of industry being more important the people. Doctorow attribute the following reasons for his new proposal:

1. The Secretary of State would get the power to create new remedies for online infringements (for example, he could create jail terms for file-sharing, or create a "three-strikes" plan that costs entire families their internet access if any member stands accused of infringement)

2. The Secretary of State would get the power to create procedures to "confer rights" for the purposes of protecting rightsholders from online infringement (for example, record labels and movie studios can be given investigative and enforcement powers that allow them to compel ISPs, libraries, companies and schools to turn over personal information about Internet users, and to order those companies to disconnect users, remove websites, block URLs, etc)

3. The Secretary of State would get the power to "impose such duties, powers or functions on any person as may be specified in connection with facilitating online infringement" (for example, ISPs could be forced to spy on their users, or to have copyright lawyers examine every piece of user-generated content before it goes live; also, copyright "militias" can be formed with the power to police copyright on the web)

What does this mean for you?

There are far ranging implications at stake in the changes being proposed here. Imagine the implications for uploading a recording of, say, a birthday party featuring background music to YouTube... That music would be subject to copyright law making the uploader a copyright infringer and a potential victim of this new bill - liable for any breaches made. Place this scenario in the context of point 2) and you can imagine being the target of record company surveillance watching your every move, even going as far to restrict your access to specific content. At what point did the British public decide to let the entertainment industry police its behaviour as if it was a state authority?

Get involved

Naturally, organisations like the Open Rights Group are campaigning against such changes and encouraging members of the public to phone their MPs with their concerns. I urge you to do the same as time is very short. You can email your MP here but due to the time limits a phone call is more likely to be effective.

Further reading:

Charles Arthur, Guardian, 20/11/09 'Treasury secretary defends government's online piracy plans'
Charles Arthur, Guardian, 20/11/09, 'Why are cyberlockers suddenly such a problem, Lord Mandelson?'
Dept for Culture, Media & Sport, 2009, Digital Britain report

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