We have been invited to the next roundtable focused on 'self-regulatory' measures to tackle copyright infringement, hosted by the Minister Ed Vaizey on Wednesday 7th December. We've written about these roundtables a few times before (for example here and here).
Self-regulation means, in this context, the search for agreements that would see 'intermediaries' such as Internet Service Providers, search engines and advertisers block, demote or cut off support for sites allegedly involved in copyright infringement. The Government says they would rather that the stakeholders involved came to an agreement together about how this should work, than pass legislation.
This has so far placed intermediaries in a pretty difficult position - the Government wants action, but the nature of the problem and what's considered a necessary response is being framed almost entirely by one voice in the debate. The intermediaries are threatened with legislation, and are seen by the Government as obstructive, if they don't at least look like they are trying to work through the ideas put forward. Yet the fundamental basis of the discussion and the bottom line requirements go unchallenged, as policy makers consider themselves simply facilitators of a voluntary relationship. Such is the problem of a discussion about self-regulation that involves only a narrow range of views.
Our concerns with this range from the seeming absence of any meaningful focus on the health of legal markets for content (see the agenda below, our research on the problems of the film market, and the Competition Commission inquiry into pay TV and how Sky's deals with Hollywood majors causes competition problems), through to an acknowledged lack of evidence to help policy makers understand the *nature* of the infringement problem (are we trying to catch the right sites, address the right people and behaviour, and with the right remedies?)
It is hard to see how judgements of necessity and proportionality can be made in this context.
Moreover, we are troubled by the closed-door process, with a small group of vested interests talking over ideas which which raise issues of significant public concern.
So on the one hand we are glad that this roundtable is more broadly constituted and will feature the voices of a wider range of perspectives. This gives us a further opportunity to emphasise arguments about evidence, website blocking and due process.
But on the other hand, we don't want to simply play along in a process that continues to hide from the light of proper public debate, and which operates on what is a skewed and flawed basis. The agenda for the meeting is as follows:
"Roundtable on Online Copyright Infringement
2. Purpose of the meeting
3. Topical updates:
a. DEA update
b. MoJ / Judiciary update
d. Search Engines
e. Revenue approaches: Credit Cards / Advertising
4. Next steps and timetable
The roundtables have so far been driven by proposals written by rights-holders, first for a faster website blocking scheme and more recently for how search engines can help stop copyright infringement. The only way to see the actual proposals, for those not involved, is through Freedom of Information requests.
From what we understand, the new proposals involve some alarming ideas to give powers to rights-holders to control search results. It's hard to say precisely, because despite being one of the participants in Wednesday's debates, we haven't seen the actual proposals. We have requested them via an FoI, but have not yet heard back.
There is no good reason I can think of to continue to operate the discussions with no transparency or room for public input. It has to be time to put these discussions on a firm, legitimate and transparent footing. Not to stop talking about the issues. But to establish a clear, equal process that ensures that the direction of travel is not determined by one voice alone, with others permitted to occasionally suggest minor course directions.
We'll report back, of course, on how well such suggestions are taken.