The UK’s Tangled Antipiracy Web

In the battle against online piracy, industry and government officials tend to cast a wide net in blocking suspected piracy-enabling websites. Sometimes this process results in the removal of sites that have nothing to do with piracy.

Last April, the UK ordered Internet service providers to block file-sharing site The Pirate Bay. A series of stories have since unfolded, from attempts to expand the list of blocked sites to reports that, ban or no ban, The Pirate Bay was still heavily trafficked by UK Web users.

More recently, a website called “promobay” was removed from the block list — the site has nothing to do with The Pirate Bay — which raised questions about who’s deciding what gets blocked, and how.

The UK’s recorded music industry advocacy group, the British Phonographic Industry, reportedly plays a major role in determining which sites get blocked. The BPI did not respond to TechNewsWorld’s interview request.

Listen to a podcast featuring Jim Killock, executive director of the UK-based Open Rights Group. Killock, an opponent of The Pirate Bay block from the start, talks about the events to transpire since the April ruling, and what it means for Internet users going forward.

Download the podcast (26:47 minutes) or use the player:

Here are some excerpts:

TechNewsWorld: Last April, when this ruling came down, you were quoted by the BBC and various other outlets saying that the decision to force ISPs to block The Pirate Bay was “pointless and dangerous.” You went on to say, “The decision will fuel further, wider and more drastic calls for Internet censorship of many kinds, from pornography to extremism. Internet censorship is growing in scope and becoming easier, yet it never has the effect desired and simply turns criminals into heroes.” So now here we are, nine months later, approaching the one-year mark of the initial decision. I’m curious if your outlook has evolved at all, or if you think that your initial prognosis has come true.

Jim Killock: We’ve certainly seen many calls from both copyright groups and from MPs [members of Parliament] for more and different kinds of Web blocking. MPs are currently discussing things like blocking sites that are involved in promoting gangs, for instance, also suicide sites. People are seeing that, well, you know, if copyright groups can get websites blocked, then maybe we can get them blocked for our problem, too. And politicians with whatever particular concerns, when they’re thinking, “How do we deal with gang violence?” then one of the things they can do is demand that material on the Internet gets blocked because it involves or promotes gang violence, allegedly. So essentially it’s now a standard thing that any politician can say, “I don’t like this,” whatever this is, “and I’m going to suggest getting that material blocked, censored.”

There’s a problem with that, and that’s that it doesn’t actually deal with the underlying problem. It just seems to sort of, perhaps, superficially stop people from visiting and seeing that material, but of course if you really want to get that material you will.

TNW: This is all especially interesting in light of the International Telecommunications Union conference which was held last month in Dubai. This was a UN-sponsored international conference that was designed to find some sort of consensus regarding the role that governments and multinational bodies should play when it came to monitoring the Internet. And from everything that I understood about the conference, the UK sided with the United States and Canada and Australia and most of Europe, kind of in opposition to various other countries like Russia, China and a lot of Arab states that were promoting an increased role of governments in monitoring what was seen and what was available on their Internet. It seems kind of hard to reconcile those two notions, that the UK was at once fighting against government intervention but that they’re been having these various debates all the while.

Killock: Yeah, well, I have to say, one thing you learn dealing with the government is that the government is not a single entity, it is not a coherent organization. You know, you have politicians, then you have different departments, and they’ve all got very conflicting ideas about what they want the Internet to do. And the result is that you can have government pointing in several different directions at the same time. The Internet is something that is ubiquitous, or increasingly ubiquitous, and central to a lot of our communications and daily lives. So it touches more or less every part of our lives, states, governments activities — everything is touched by it. So everyone has got a sort of “finger in the pie,” and that kind of means that the Internet could, especially domestically, die a death of a thousand cuts if we’re not careful. Because the threats emerge from so many different perspectives, usually from people who’ve got very little idea about what they’re trying to interfere with.

TNW: For all the talk of different sites that have been blocked, like The Pirate Bay and other file-sharing sites [that] have been added to the list, there was an interesting story last month that I know you wrote about at openrightsgroup.org — a site called “promobay” was unblocked. Various Internet service providers were blocking this site and when people dug a little deeper into why the site was being blocked, there wasn’t such a good answer. And it turned out that this site was not engaged in any sort of illicit activity, there was not file-sharing going on. And in your write-up about the situation, you said it was a “revealing incident.” What was it about that that you thought was so revealing?

Killock: Well, it appears that the court orders that the BPI [British recorded music industry] gets for Web-blocking allow them to decide what gets blocked. So they supply a list of domains to each Internet service provider that says, “All of these domains and IP addresses are serving The Pirate Bay, and therefore you must block them.” And it’s entirely up to the BPI to do that; the ISP has to comply with that order — that’s what the court order does, it says that the BPI will tell you what to do. You know, the result of that is that the BPI get to make the mistakes and correct them, and nobody else has any say in the matter. Even worse, these lists are not published, so the promobay was on the list that got given to the Internet service providers, but nobody actually knew about it, not even the promobay.

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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