Friday, April 16, 2010

The Digital Economy Act

Believe me, I know almost no one I know is interested in this, but yet I persevere. That is how dedicated I am to the proposition that my blog will remain unpopular.

Here is a horror story about a terrible law. Last week the parliament in the UK passed a stinking bad law, I am talking Patriot Act bad, Prohibition bad, I am talking bone chilling.

Under this law, content providers (companies who own the rights to movies, tv shows, songs, practicallyspeaking it's movies mostly) (and therefore only rich corporate conglomerates, not individual artists) are given free reign to police the internet. Internet service providers are forced by law to do what they say, including turning over personal details and cutting off repeat violators. That is right. Internet service providers must shut off internet access for repeat offenders, whether those repeat offenders were cynical opportunists or it was grandma who let the neighbor's kid play on the computer. More disturbingly, they must block access to certain sites that the copyright owners think are violating their rights.

I work at an internet service provider, but one that serves a transient population, hotel guests, so I don't think the act is even going to end up applying to us, I don't think it should.

I was at the stakeholders' meeting at Ofcom, the government agency that is writing the implementing regulations for this bill. If the devil is in the details, certainly it was the minions of satan gathered at Riverside House for this meeting. They seemed like a perfectly nice bunch. In their bland and polite way they told us that although the legislation contemplated that the industry would write the first round of regulations, there was simply no time for that, in fact, all the regulations simply have to be done in six weeks. It was terrifying.

The beauty of the internet was that it was policed by human decency. Starting in September in the UK it will be policed by bureaucrats. Not enough people are bemoaning this change. When the government starts to decide what you are allowed to look at - when they unthinkingly bow to the power of the media conglomerates and give them far greater rights than mortal artists ever, have ever had in the pre-internet world - I get a little concerned. It used to be I bought a book. If I loved it, I gave it to you. But if I read that book online, it is licensed content and I cannot share. The scope of possible copyright infringements is so vast - did you know that when you download a CD YOU OWN onto a computer YOU OWN you are technically violating copyright? It is all so laden with pitfalls and potential for abuse.

At the meeting, I spoke to a lot of people and I kept floating the old American idea of a chilling effect, that a law could be unconstitutional if its net effect was to chill speech. So if grandma is scared to explore the internet because she doesn't want to be blackballed, then maybe it isn't such a good law. This was laughed off pretty thoroughly. No one thought it made any sense in this context. But I still think it does.

I don't think the US would be in danger of passing this law because culturally, Americans are much more hostile to any kind of government oversight of their lives in ways that Europeans just aren't. But if you live in the UK, you mark my words, this law sucks, it will be nothing but trouble and the bureaucrats are not up for the tremendous challenge of administering something of that complexity. This will all end in tears.

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