Has the Government got a Google-plex?

Last night Jeremy Hunt announced his vision for UK digital media at the Royal Television Society in Cambridge.

His speech, portending a new Communications Act (for which there will be a Green Paper), lauded the strengths of the UK’s digital economy but stressed that in order to remain a world leader in digital content provision the UK needs to continue to attract sound investment from overseas investors. In a rather contrived move appealing to the nation’s sense of moral duty, he proposed stronger measures to regulate the Internet to protect consumers from offensive content and to protect the valuable digital content of the creative industries from copyright infringement. And the responsibility rests with search engines, Internet Service Providers (ISPs), advertisers, credit card companies, banks and the courts to ensure that sites dedicated to the infringement of copyright are made increasingly difficult to access. Yet, if voluntary measures do not work, the government has pledged to outline legislative solutions to tackle file-sharing.

Opinions on this vary: some argue that sites which host infringing content are severely damaging to the creative industry and should be taken offline, and others argue that to allow the industry to dictate on the behalf of all which sites infringe impinges on the right to freedom of expression and equates to censorship. Jeremy Hunt was careful to say that ISPs and search engines must take “reasonable steps to make it harder to access sites that a court has deemed contain unlawful content or promote unlawful distribution of content” (emphasis mine) – the power therefore lies with the judicial system to decide the fate of websites. Couple this with Hunt’s pledge to “streamline the legal process to make it possible for courts to act quickly” and you have to wonder whether MPA v BT (Newzbin2) was just the tip of the iceberg, opening the floodgates for many more similar cases. Google has spoken out against the UK government’s plans to make it a “copyright cop” and stated that it already successfully deals with online copyright infringement.

Statutory anti-piracy laws may be effective in countries such as South Korea but the UK needs to be careful not to alienate its citizens. It’s likely that a move towards legislative measures is political – the government must be seen to be protecting the creative economy – but one thing that must not happen is the blurring of boundaries between civil and criminal copyright infringement. Responses must be proportionate and reasonable, unlike the file-sharing cases in the United States, for example. In a nation in the grips of recession, where unemployment is at an uncomfortable high, people do not have the money to pay fines for civil instances of copyright infringement. Criminal copyright infringement should of course be dealt with stringently, but for civil infringement it is likely there are other options available. Professor Hargreaves has recommended that copyright policy be based on evidence, not lobbying, and as such there is a need for more independent research on the activity and impact of file-sharing. Copyright infringement is not theft, and the very real danger of anti-piracy legislation is that ordinary citizens will suffer for the actions of the real criminals.    

Emily Goodhand runs the Copyright for Education blog. Follow her  on Twitter @copyrightgirl