At the London Conference on Cyberspace, Foreign Secretary William Hague sent a clear message to Governments around the world: "Do not treat cyberspace as if it belongs to you….You should not imagine for an instant that you can resist the growing force of the tide now flowing for transparency, open information and the free exchange of ideas."
But good Internet policy starts at home. Censorship is rearing its ugly head in the UK. A number of proposals from the Government and others put the free flow of information in the UK at risk, with suggestions that website blocking be used for content related to copyright infringement, terrorism and adult material.
Website blocking is ineffective and dangerous. It won't prevent access to the sites blocked, because it is trivial to avoid. And whether it is through over-reaching regulation, damaging technical consequences or weak legal oversight, it risks undermining people's ability to access information freely. Our concern is that it hands too much power to law enforcement, Government or private interests, with too little oversight, over what information people are allowed to access online.
Help Open Rights Group fight censorship in the UK. Below you can learn about what the Government and others are doing, and find out ways to contribute.
What is happening?
Copyright owners want sites that are accused of copyright infringement to be blocked. Rights holders can currently go to court to get an injunction that forces an ISP to block websites involved in infringement. The first of these has recently been granted (the detailed order is here), with BT being forced to block access to the website Newzbin2. There are also further demands from rights holders for quasi-judicial arrangements with ISPs, currently being discussed in closed-door roundtables with the Minister Ed Vaizey MP.
Website blocking for copyright infringement won't work to fix creative economies' problems and does pose a significant risk to due process and freedom of expression. In the case of injunctions, it is likely that the costs of challenging requests to block sites will put off ISPs from going through expensive court procedures. There have already been requests to BT to extend blocking to the Pirate Bay, a site that has not been subject to injunctions or court action in the UK. There is a risk that the injunctions 'route' will come to have only a tenuous relationship with proper due process.
Furthermore, documents setting out the proposals for a new 'streamlined', quasi-judicial scheme describe a “voluntary” blocking process involving “expedited” court procedures with slimline legal oversight, little definition of or evidence for the exact problem being addressed, and no consideration of the technical considerations and consequences of trying to block websites.
Giving parents the tools to try to manage Internet access at home is a perfectly reasonable move. However, some MPs want to go much further in regulating what legal content people are allowed to access online. They don't like adults accessing adult material and would like to see all Internet accounts have such content - however it is defined - banned by default. To access the material, the account owner would have to "opt in" to adult content - and potentially put their names onto a list of people at the ISP who want to access adult material.
Any interventions that reach beyond giving parents tools to manage their own households' mean taking responsibility for what people are allowed to see and do online out of their own hands. It is both difficult to define what is worthy of blocking and technically difficult to ensure only the right content is blocked. This is suggested in the name of protecting children from adult content, but the filters would encourage parents to wrongly believe that children were being properly protected.
The Prevent counter-terrorism strategy suggested that supposed terrorist websites be banned in schools, libraries, academic institutions and government buildings: and that ISPs should be necouraged to ban these sites as well. All this would take place without the need for a court order or any legal process, with suggestions that content that falls into vaguely defined categories such as 'violent' should be included in blocks.
So far usuccessfully, police have tried to push for hate crime websites to be blocked.
How website blocking works
Website blocking technologies have been built in order to block child abuse images and sites, but are now being used for copyright and potentially terrorism. BT's Cleanfeed technology blocks specific domains or URLs. Currently, BT requires a court order before it will act - but is being placed in a very difficult position as the legal costs of objecting to requests had to be paid by BT. This could discourage BT and other ISPs from objecting to future censorship requests.
The consequences of blocking
With website blocking come risks of over-blocking, network damage and, once in place, insufficient oversight and accountability. Added together, that means that blocking risks harming people's rights to freely access and share information.
Website blocking is ineffective and dangerous.
Ineffective: Blocking will be trivial to avoid, requiring little or no technical knowledge or time. Ofcom's report into the website blocking provisions of the Digital Economy Act discusses how easily blocking can be avoided. Internet security expert Dr Richard Clayton from the University of Cambridge, argues that 'continuing to pursue this chimera will just mean that time and money will be pointlessly wasted'.
The Newzbin2 site, the subject of the first injunction recently handed to BT, has already provided its UK users with tools to get around the current blocking order. Once many people wish to avoid censorship, new methods of getting round the blocks will become popular and easy to use. Some of these may expose individuals to child abuse content or even make police work more difficult.
In the case of copyright, censorship is pointless. The sites have owners, bank accounts and even companies that can be targeted in courts. The push for censorship will only make infringers work harder to abuse copyright. The answer is more and better legal services that satisfy consumers' demand.
Dangerous: Internet Service Providers now provide a platform that facilitates great economic and social innovation, and which allows people to express themselves more freely than ever before. The limits on ISPs liability for what happens on their networks, which are defined in law, are hugely significant in protecting these activities. An impact on freedom of expression and innovation is inevitable when those boundaries are redrawn. There is also likely unintended overblocking, with the wrong sites being accidentally put on the — inevitably secret — block list. In Australia, a dentist and a kennel were placed on a planned list aimed at blocking child abuse images.
These concerns help to explain the interest of Article 19, Index on Censorship and Global Partners in this issue, all of whom signed a joint open letter to rights-holders about the risks of website blocking for copyright infringement. More recently ORG and 10 other freedom of expression experts, including Index on Censorship, Evgeny Morozov, Cory Doctorow and Heather Brooke, wrote a joint letter to the Foreign Secretary pointing out that domestic policies, from blocking for copyright through to adult material filtering, are undermining our international commitments to freedom of expression. Consumer Focus have worked extensively to highight the effects for consumers.
This year the OSCE and the UN's Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Expression, Frank La Rue both expressed concerns about website blocking. Julian Huppert MP tabled an 'Early Day Motion' (EDM 1913) calling for the Government to reconsider blocking policies in the light of criticism in the UN report. To date it has been signed by 114 MPs. We've helped over 8,600 people write to their MPs to express their concerns about blocking.
Censorship is a poor public policy. It won't work to solve the problems at hand and does come with a number of technological and procedural risks to freedom of expression.It should be avoided wherever possible.
But whatever the reason for censorship, once it is in place it, society is induced into a battle over what to censor and ban next, rather than discussing how to deal with the problems itself.
What we can do about it?
Firstly, tell your friends. Write blogs, or simply send them to this webpage.
Secondly, write to your MP, and tell them that you are worried about website censorship.
You can read the briefing we gave to the Minister Ed Vaizey MP here.