The UK government has just announced that it is considering cutting off the connections of those who share copyrighted material on the Internet.
After meeting my prospective Labour MP Steve McCabe last week, I've sent him this letter:
It was good to meet you recently when you were door-knocking in Stirchley. We had an interesting discussion around ID cards and my concerns about centralised databases.
I'm writing on a somewhat related issue, related insofar as I think it is another example of the government's rather misguided approach to legislating around new technologies, which I believe can be summed up rather bluntly as "try to control, rather than to understand". As you may be aware, the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) is currently consulting on what action (if any) the government should take regarding those accused of sharing copyrighted material using the Internet (typically with peer-to-peer networks). I can appreciate that the government has come under a lot of pressure from representatives of big content producers, such as the music and film industry, but I think that the proposals in the BIS document entitled "GOVERNMENT STATEMENT ON THE PROPOSED P2P FILE-SHARING LEGISLATION" would be doing the big content producers a big favour, to the potential detriment of ordinary citizens. The BIS document can be found here: http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file52658.pdf
Specifically, I would like to point out the following sentence, from the first page of the proposal:
"We are considering the case for adding into the list of technical measures [which could be taken against the individual] the power, as a last resort, to suspend a subscriber’s account."
I would like to object strongly to this for a number of reasons, both practical and philosophical.
1) Since Internet connections are installed per-house rather than per-individual, suspending the connection for one individual would also unfairly deprive all other members of the household from using the Internet. This is an example of collective punishment, which I believe is wrong. Examples of effects of this might include:
a) Families, where one family member (perhaps an enthusiastic teenager, discovering what the Internet can offer) has been suspected of sharing copyrighted material, and their siblings and parents would be deprived of an Internet connection. For the siblings (as well as for the suspected offender) this is likely to have a detrimental effect on their schoolwork and social network.
b) Shared student households, of which there are obviously a lot in our constituency, where the actions of one student would deprive the others of the ability to access vital study resources from home. Of course, all universities today rely heavily on the Internet for teaching and research. The University of Birmingham, for example, delivers a range of essential course materials through its Virtual Learning Environment (VLE): http://weblearn.bham.ac.uk
c) Where the household has taken in a lodger, the lodger's actions could deprive their hosts from the use of the Internet, or vice-versa.
As is now widely recognised, access to the Internet is now seen by many as a vital utility in many households. Indeed, being deprived of access to the Internet is likely to increase social exclusion, as so much of modern life is conducted through it. Additionally, having had this exclusion imposed as a result of the actions of someone else actions is unfair and immoral.
2) I am also concerned that this punishment would be imposed without due legal process. If the individual in question is suspected of having committed a crime, which is not usually the case for copyright infringement, then this should be pursued in a court of law. For civil offences, which more usual in copyright infringement cases, the copyright holder has the right to pursue damages, also through the courts. Of course, individuals can then choose to settle with the plaintiff out of court, but if they choose not to do this, then they should have the right of continuing with due legal process.
3) In addition, I do not believe that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should be required by the government to act on behalf of large copyright holders in achieving their legal aims, especially since they are being paid by the customer and are working for them. This approach is therefore not only paradoxical, but also places an unfair burden on ISPs, which will only serve to increase the cost of Internet connections for everyone. Drawing an analogy to older technology, it is like requiring manufacturers of cassette recording equipment and tapes to check up on what the tapes have been used for after they have been sold, or to require them to fit monitoring equipment to the cassette recorders. Should this be extended to all other tools one might use to copy and distribute things, legally or illegally, such as photocopiers, digital cameras and scanners? This is clearly ludicrous.
4) I can understand that in the present system, the government might want to consider how individuals could be banned from using the Internet in certain circumstances, for example where it has been used for the production or dissemination of child pornography, or used extensively in the planning of violent crime, but should this really be extended to civil offences such as copyright infringement? I do not believe so. But, even if so, this power should, as discussed above, form part of the legal process, and be only exercised by a court of law. And crucially, this this must be done in a way that doesn't deprive others of what is an essential right in the modern world.
Needless to say that I applaud the government's policy of achieving "universal connectivity to broadband", but implementing what is being proposed here would severely undermine this policy. In summary, the proposal appears to bend over backwards to please big copyright holding companies, to the detriment of ordinary citizens, whether or not they have even been involved in the file-sharing activity.
I would be interested to know your thoughts on this matter.
I'll post the response I get too.