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OfCom to review DEA’s web-blocking provisions

By | Published on Wednesday 2 February 2011


Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt yesterday asked media regulator OfCom to review the section of last year’s Digital Economy Act that put in place – sort of – a framework to speed up the process by which content owners can force copyright infringing websites, including those that enable others to infringe, offline. He said that although he agreed in principle that copyright owners should have a simpler route to target infringing websites, he wasn’t 100% convinced the system proposed in the Act would work.

This all relates to the second key element of the copyright section of the DEA, the bit that’s not three-strikes. Although plans to ultimately suspend the internet connections of persistent file-sharers got most attention outside of parliament as the DEA was being discussed, it was these measures to shut down infringing websites that caused most controversy in the house.

Said measures weren’t even in the first draft of the bill, rather there was an ambiguous clause giving the secretary of state powers to introduce such systems in due course. But that proved too ambiguous for parliamentarians, and so a more detailed clause was inserted outlining a process that would enable content owners to take quick action against sites that infringe, or enable others to do so, rather than them having to pursue drawn out and costly infringement litigation against a website’s owners, or having to convince the authorities some sort of conspiracy to defraud is taking place.

But those proposals also proved controversial. Some claimed that the system could be used to target search engines which, in amongst a stack of legitimate search results, provide links to unlicensed content. Others said the system amounted to censorship of the internet. In the end, and with ministers rushing to get the bill passed before the General Election, the clause was all but cut from the bill. Except what actually happened was that the clause stayed in with an additional line saying the secretary of state could consider such measures at some point in the future, but would have to return to parliament to actually green light such a system.

Anyway, now Hunt wants to completely review the proposals. He told reporters yesterday: “The government is committed to creating the right conditions for businesses to grow. That includes providing them with the right tools to protect the products of their hard work and investment. The Digital Economy Act seeks to protect our creative economy from online copyright infringement, which industry estimates costs them £400m a year”.

He continued: “I have no problem with the principle of blocking access to websites used exclusively for facilitating illegal downloading of content, but it is not clear whether the site-blocking provisions in the act could work in practice so I have asked Ofcom to address this question. Before we consider introducing site blocking we need to know whether these measures are possible”.

The review is also backed by that oh so popular shithead, I mean Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who said the review was in part motivated by public response to his Your Freedom consultation project. He told reporters: “When we launched Your Freedom, I promised that the ideas submitted would be given proper consideration. Although reform of the Digital Economy Act did not form part of the coalition agreement, we have listened to the views expressed. The government will look at whether we have the right tools for the job in addressing the problem of online copyright infringement”.

Those who oppose the copyright elements of the DEA, already pleased that the whole three-strikes thing is heading to a judicial review, were equally delighted that Hunt is now reviewing this part of the act. Peter Bradwell of the Open Rights Group told The Guardian: “It’s encouraging to see the government listening to people’s genuine concerns about the Digital Economy Act. The web-blocking provisions are a real mistake – they would stifle freedom of expression, for unproven benefit, whilst being extremely costly and difficult to manage”.

But those in the music industry who lobbied hard for the DEA, including this provision, stand by the proposals in the act. BPI top man Geoff Taylor told CMU: “The BPI continues to believe that measures to prevent access to illegal websites are essential if Britain’s creative and technology sectors are to fulfil their growth potential. Many of these websites are located outside the UK and exist solely to profit at the expense of artists and creators, threatening British jobs and investment. We will engage closely with Ofcom’s Review and make the case for an effective mechanism to deal with illegal non-P2P downloading”.

OfCom is expected to report back later this spring.