The Digital Economy Bill and online censorship
March saw Google stop censoring its search engine’s Chinese version, with the internet giant instead redirecting mainland China users to its Hong Kong-based site. China, as the media likes to continually inform us, ranks among the most repressive regimes with regards to internet expression. Indeed, Reporters Without Borders class the superpower alongside Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Uzbekistan and Vietnam as the biggest 'Enemies of the Internet'.
Surprisingly then, considering the distinct lack of coverage of its censorship laws in the media, liberal democracy Australia is also under surveillance by Reporters Without Borders, ranked beside Bahrain, Russia, South Korea and United Arab Emirates for its hindering of a free internet.
While it is highly unlikely that Google would ever outright compare Australia to China, or indeed take a similarly firm stance against it, it seems that Australia’s internet policies have not escaped the notice of the search engine. Only days after making known its position over China, Google warned the Australian government of the likelihood that its internet censorship proposal of a mandatory filtering scheme would "confer legitimacy upon filtering by other Governments". In fact Australia recently featured 10th in Google’s list of countries that have asked the search engine to hand over user data or to censor information.
The Australian government, it seems, is intent on passing legislation to block all Refused Classification (RC) websites, and in particular those distributing material relating to child sexual abuse, bestiality, incest, and graphic 'high-impact' images of violence. It is feared, however, that this blacklist would extend even further to censor materials concerned with issues such as euthanasia, drugs and protest - all of which should be the reserve of political debate and, as such, information concerned with them freely available.
Everyone in the debate agrees that blocking depictions of child sex abuse is a legitimate government function, and Google notes that such limited internet blocks have been implemented or are being considered in the UK, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Sweden, and New Zealand, but it raises the question of why Australia is ready to go "well beyond that scope to the much wider category of RC". The Australian policy is therefore viewed as particularly heavy handed and raises genuine questions about restrictions on access to information.
The Draconian implications of these proposals have been widely criticised and a readers' poll in the Sydney Morning Herald showed 96% of Australians opposed to the proposed measures. But if liberal Australians can find themselves subjected to such measures despite huge public disapproval, how long until the UK finds itself with mandatory filter schemes in place?
Well, the pushing through of the Digital Economy Bill has been viewed by many as the UK condemning itself to a similar fate.
Portrayed as a footing for Britain’s future, steering it in the right direction for the digital age, the Bill claims it will revolutionise the digital and broadcasting industry, as well as the video games sector, while ensuring high speed broadband for all.
Some marketers, including Paul O'Donoghue at The Distillery @ Reading Room, opine that Digital Britain "is a good bill in some respects as it does highlight the need to kick start the push of open access of the internet and the increase in enhanced broadband across the UK.
"With convergence higher on the agenda than ever before following the Digital Switch Over, there is a great desire for platforms to be more synergised and truly cross-platform – allowing access to services wherever the customer is and whatever device they are accessing content from"
And by 2012, it is claimed, 90% of us will be able to enjoy a minimum broadband connection of 2mbs, which should go some way in helping the digital industries. However, considering residents of Japan and South Korea already enjoy 100mbs, and 'liberal' Australia has stated plans of 100mbs within the next eight years, the UK's plans do seem a bit weak. And why only 90% of us?
Iain S Bruce at Revolver PR derided the proposals, saying: "Given that Singapore's citizens will have access to 100mbs connections by 2012, the UK's broadband infrastructure is frankly pathetic - as is the body politics' insistence on leaving its development to the vagaries of private enterprise."
Unsurprisingly many commentators have voiced concern that the Bill has failed to go far enough in its commitment to the advancement of the digital industries. The general consensus is that it has instead cloaked more despotic measures which have been forced upon us.
These include Ofcom's remit being changed, more power given to the government to intervene when domain names are registered, increased authority afforded to scrutinise violent video games, and the IFNC (independently funded news consortia) pilot scheme has been killed off.
Mike Parker, technical director of Orange Bus, probably best sums up the conflicts of the whole affair and the paradox involved in improving matters for the general public whilst trying to mollify stakeholders: "With the one hand they are putting in place measures to enable access to the digital age, and with the other the, putting in place laws to remove access to appease industry."
You see, the main problem detractors have with the Bill is that without full debate and scrutiny, and with huge public opposition, a Bill has been passed which proposes disconnection of broadband customers who are deemed to be infringing copyright laws without first being given the opportunity to plead their innocence before a court.
The Bill has passed provisions allowing the secretary of state to seek court injunctions to block any website "which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be, used for, or in connection with, an activity that infringes copyright".
Rights holders will also have the power to demand that sites they believe to contravene copyright law be blocked by ISPs, although it will not be the perpetrator that is punished, but rather the owner of the connection. This could spell the end of wifi culture as bars and cafes protect themselves from castigation.
To appeal unfair disconnection or blocking would not merit legal aid and would prove costly, and the onus would be on you to prove your innocence – not on the rights holders to prove your guilt.
Nigel Hunter at Fuse8 is quick to point out routes round some of these issues as he endorses virtual private networks such as Giganews: "Not only will they disguise from your ISP what you might be doing, they will also allow you to appear to be operating from an IP address in a totally different part of the world! And it can all be so strongly encrypted that it’s already pretty easy to remain anonymous."
Also on the side of the user is executive director of TalkTalk Andrew Heaney, who has written in a company blog that the ISP would refuse to co-operate with the new measures, stating: "TalkTalk will continue to battle against these oppressive proposals. Unless we are served with a court order, we will never surrender a customer’s details to rights holders". This is despite the possibility of a £250,000 fine for non-compliance.
Mr Heaney points to the fact that, just like in China, these proposals would potentially block many legitimate search engines and websites.
Google, for example, could feasibly fall foul of the imposed restrictions due to the Bill’s hazy wording – "has been, is being or is likely to be, used for, or in connection with". Political debate, press freedom, or even artistic expression would likewise be hampered – just try getting clearance for mydavidcameron.com or WikiLeaks or, closer to home for readers of The Drum, the Chip Shop Awards. Websites hosting any matter of copyrighted material could be blocked, no matter their reasons, or whether publishing such materials is in the public’s best interests.
Storm ID's Vivienne MacLaren lambasts the Bill’s cloudy definitions, saying: "It's a real concern that Government could wield unprecedented power over blocking and censoring users and websites based on flimsily-defined legislation."
Australian internet users got militant to take a stand against their government, with a number of initiatives and online pushes, including No Clean Feed (pictured left) and The Great Australian Internet Blackout – which encouraged website owners and users to black out their profile for a week and black out online profile pictures, as well as writing to their MPs.
Perhaps UK web operators and online users should adopt a similar stance? It is certainly the threat of governmental repression inherent in the Bill that will prove by far the biggest issue fuelling critics, and, until such issues are addressed, the Bill for many will represent nothing more than government censorship.