Monday, March 15, 2010

British Put Teeth in Anti-Piracy Proposal; New York Times, 3/15/10

Eric Pfanner, New York Times; British Put Teeth in Anti-Piracy Proposal:

"When asked how governments ought to deal with freeloaders who illegally copy music and movies on the Internet, James Murdoch, head of News Corp.’s European and Asian operations, does not mince his words: “Punish them.”

“There is no difference with going into a store and stealing Pringles or a handbag and taking this stuff,” he said last week at a media conference in Abu Dhabi. “We need enforcement mechanisms and we need governments to play ball.”

In Britain, where Mr. Murdoch is based, lawmakers have taken up the challenge — to the consternation of Internet companies and civil liberties groups, which are ratcheting up their own arguments against a tough anti-piracy bill that is nearing the make-or-break stage in Parliament.

The measure, championed by the business secretary, Peter Mandelson, would give the British authorities new tools to clamp down on piracy, including the right to cut off the Internet connections of persistent copyright cheats. Such a system has been approved, though not yet implemented, in France.

The British proposal, set to be taken up by the House of Commons on Monday, goes further. Under an amendment to the bill in the House of Lords this month, courts would be empowered to order Internet service providers to block access to Web sites that provide pirated movies, music and other media content.

Supporters of the amendment say it would finally give copyright holders the tools to tackle the piracy problem at the supply and demand levels, after more than a decade of largely futile efforts. But critics of the bill say it raises the specter of censorship on the Internet, and could undermine the development of Britain’s digital economy, currently among the most advanced in the world.

“Put simply, blocking access as envisaged by this clause would both widely disrupt the Internet in the U.K. and elsewhere, threatening freedom of speech and the open Internet, without reducing copyright infringement as intended,” opponents of the proposal wrote in a letter to The Financial Times. It was signed by Internet service providers, Internet companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay and Facebook, and other groups.

Britain is not the only country considering tougher measures to fight piracy. Along with France, South Korea also recently approved a system under which Internet pirates who ignore two warnings to stop illegal downloads face the loss of their Internet connections. Lawmakers in Spain have proposed a measure that, like the British proposal, could require Internet service providers to block access to certain sites.

The British government says a tougher approach on piracy could provide hundreds of millions of dollars for the “creative industries,” which already account for more than 6 percent of British economic output.

But critics say the proposals would be expensive to enforce and would generate very little new revenue.

Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, which campaigns against restrictions on the Internet, said the bill contained unusually broad scope for abuse. Individuals or companies, he said, might try to use it to suppress any Web content they found objectionable, under the pretext of protecting their copyrights.

British libel laws, which put the burden of proof on the defendant, are already employed in this way by wealthy plaintiffs, critics say; rather than mount expensive defenses, bloggers and others accused of libel often back down and withdraw whatever statements drew offense."

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