March 20, 2014 | Emily Goodhand

Why UK copyright reform is needed

This is a guest blog post by Emily Goodhand. You can find her on Twitter as @copyrightgirl

As the Government last week admitted that changes to copyright law on 1st April are unlikely to go ahead as planned, it is worth pausing for a moment to understand the repercussions of this slippage for consumers. Why is it important for these copyright exceptions to become law?

1. Copyright law is out of balance with everyday consumer practice

There has been a trend in legislation over the last ten years or so to strengthen rights for creators of copyrighted works. Whilst it is important that creators of copyrighted works have ample recognition for their works and the ability to monetise those works, this trend has not been offset by amendments or additions to user privileges. As a result, copyright law is now out of balance with practices which have become commonplace in the digital world (such as making copies of lawfully purchased music to backup or play on another device). Making copyright law more appropriate for the digital age may help it recover some credibility and relevance in the eyes of consumers.

2. A balanced copyright framework enables economic growth across all sectors

The investigation into copyright reform was initiated by the Prime Minister David Cameron, who stated that Google could never have started their company in Britain owing to the ‘unfriendly’ copyright system. Although a system of fair use (similar to the US) is not on the cards, it is fair to say that the UK’s copyright framework does not adapt quickly enough to keep pace with technological advances. This was echoed by Professor Ian Hargreaves in his ‘Digital Opportunity’ report following the initial review of intellectual property. The government’s subsequent report, ‘Modernising Copyright’, estimated that bringing the law into the 21st century could contribute around £500 million to the UK economy over 10 years. Several reports (such as the one on the Singapore economy following changes to Singapore’s copyright law) have indicated that exceptions and limitations actually contribute to economic growth without damaging the creative and copyright industries. Exceptions and limitations should therefore not be overlooked or diminished when considering the economic benefits of copyright.

3. Our audio-visual cultural heritage is at risk

The permitted acts in copyright law at present do not extend to copying audio-visual works for preservation purposes. Archivists all over the country who are custodians of large collections of 20th century music, films and broadcasts are faced with the risk of losing older works as technology moves on and the ability to copy from one format to another disappears altogether. An update to the preservation exception would significantly help archivists and librarians in the cultural heritage sector and ensure that films, sound recordings and broadcasts are preserved for all to enjoy.

4. Research and scientific discovery is being held back

Research has rapidly become an activity which occurs across borders. The Internet allows researchers to collaborate quickly and effectively, and technology has enabled data processing on a vast scale. Current provision in copyright law for researchers restricts copying to non-audio-visual works only, which often puts researchers in the subject areas of film, TV and music at a disadvantage. There is also no provision for text and data mining, which could speed up knowledge discovery and save research costs. The proposed exceptions for research would be beneficial to researchers in all areas and accelerate scientific discovery.

5. Copyright law needs to take into account modern teaching practice

The blackboard and chalk of the classroom of thirty years ago has been replaced by interactive whiteboards, digital displays and multimedia software. Yet copyright law still reflects the literal ‘chalk and talk’ approach of yesteryear. Teachers are required to make lessons visually stimulating and accessible to all but often do not have the time to think about copyright clearance. Teachers should be able to include images and other content in their presentations without having to worry about copyright issues. The proposed exception for education takes into account the modern day teaching practices and will allow teachers to use any type of content in their lesson presentations.

6. Lack of accessible content for print-disabled people

Copyright law is currently too narrow to be of much use to those who are not covered by its definition of ‘visually impaired’. It does not cover, for example, people with a learning difficulty, such as dyslexia. Where accessible copies are available commercially, thereby negating the provisions in law, the cost is often too high for the user to afford. The proposed exception would level the playing field for people with any sort of disability which prevents them from accessing a copyright work and enable libraries to better provide loan copies for them.

It is fitting that last week heralded the 25th anniversary of the foundation of the Web. It is also 25 years since the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act received Royal Assent. Since 1989, the Internet and other types of new technology have changed the world dramatically. The copyright framework needs to reflect these changes and fit with the digital world so that information is preserved, respect for the law is regained and opportunities are not lost to competitor countries who have more flexible frameworks.

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March 20, 2014 | Jim Killock

Will 'voluntary' copyright enforcement protect users' rights?

The Digital Economy Act is stalled. But ISPs and rightsholders are apparently closing in on a voluntary letter writing scheme to replace it.

It is approaching four years since the Digital Economy Act was passed, and still measures within it to deal with individuals alleged to have infringed copyright have not been implemented. It’s an Act that was so poorly conceived, planned and written that it has proven almost impossible to implement in practice. 

In response to these delays, copyright holder trade associations have been seeking a voluntary deal. That would mean ISPs and copyright holders working together to identify and write letters to alleged copyright infringers. The scheme would work like the Digital Economy Act was supposed to, just without being driven by the law.

Looking at what was said at a recent Westminster Hall debate (on 13th February), it looks like that voluntary deal is edging closer. It has an acronym and everything - ‘VCAP’ (the ‘voluntary copyright alert programme’. John Whittingdale MP asked about progress in a debate about the creative industries report written by the Culture, Media and Sport Committee (which he chairs.) He said:

“Despite the difficulties in enacting the DEA, the recent development of a voluntary agreement is in many ways preferable, if it can be made to work. In America, that is already working well. A voluntary copyright alert programme would involve an agreement between the rights owners and the ISPs that there would be a system through which letters were issued to those identified as illegally downloading. If that can be done voluntarily, that is preferable, and we should get on with that as quickly as possible. The Committee’s report is clear: we prefer a voluntary system, but if agreement cannot be reached, the Government need to stand by to bring into force the provisions of the Digital Economy Act 2010, and to use legislation.”

In response, the Minister Ed Vaizey said:

“Perhaps that is the appropriate moment for me to pick up the point that the Select Committee Chairman made about the VCAP proposals. It has been difficult to implement the details of the Digital Economy Act 2010. The Government have not resiled from it, but there are significant technical obstacles, including the fact that we were being sued by BT and TalkTalk for at least two years from the time when it was passed. Other technical obstacles have presented themselves, and we are actively seeking to overcome them, but nevertheless we welcome the industry initiative, not only because we hope it may be up and running before the end of the year, but because it requires a partnership between both sides of the debate, and because it brings important flexibility to make it possible to adapt. I suspect that it will be easier to adapt the system as technology changes.”

You can also watch the Minister’s response from about 2 hours into this video.

With discussions seemingly only between ISPs and rights holder trade associations, there is nobody representing the public interest or overseeing how the scheme will work to that end. The government are playing the now familiar role of watching as an ‘industry initiative’ develops - allowing them to look like they’re doing something whilst disowning themselves of any responsibility. The only online reference from DCMS I can find to the voluntary scheme is in last year's policy paper, in which they say "the Government continues to implement the Digital Economy Act 2010, whilst encouraging industry-led alternatives".

All the familiar issues with the Digital Economy Act apply to this new scheme. For instance, what personal information will be used, and who will have access to it? What standards of evidence will rights holders use, or will ISPs demand, when allegations of infringement are made? (Lots of work, particularly by Consumer Focus, went in to looking at this issue when the Digital Economy Act was being discussed.)

Will there be any sanctions against households whose accounts have been allegedly used for infringing? Will there be any appeals process for those who feel a mistake has been made? And will the scheme include public wifi? Who is addressing any of these questions?

We did mention problems like this in our oral and written evidence to the Committee. Given we appear prominently in paragraph four of their report, it’s clear they noticed us even if they singularly failed to listen to or understand anything we actually said.

You can read our comments on the CMS Committee in our previous post, in which we explain why the parts about copyright enforcement and reform are a pretty weak effort.

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March 17, 2014 | Javier Ruiz

EU crucial vote on Net Neutrality

Net neutrality is a fundamental aspect of the Internet as we know it. Right now all bits are treated equally, so traffic from big companies like Microsoft and Facebook gets the same speed as your blogs or podcasts. Different types of traffic are sometimes optimised, for example games or video. But the idea is that nobody's traffic should be slowed down. Internet users and website owners shouldn't have to pay Internet Service Providers a premium to be given access to the Internet fast lane.

Tomorrow, 18 March 2014, the Industry (ITRE) committee of the European Parliament is voting on a proposal for a new Regulation for a Telecom Single Market that promises to enshrine net neutrality into law across the EU. The initiative is to be commended, but the current version of the text contains some very dangerous loopholes. The good news is that these could be easily fixed if MEPs struck down a couple of articles.

Specialised services

The proposed Regulation that would allow Internet providers to charge extra money for so called "specialised services", for example video-on-demand such as Netflix. Many people are worried this will lead to a two-tiered internet, where companies with deep pockets hog the fast lane, leaving the rest of us in the dust.

ISPs policing the internet

Unless the Regulation is amended, Internet Providers will be able to block content without any judicial oversight. Internet Service Providers should not be allowed to decide what content you can and cannot access.

Weakening the principle of net neutrality could make your Internet more expensive. Your bill could start looking like Sky or Virgin TV, with basic services and confusing added packages. But tinkering with net neutrality would also impact freedom of speech and plurality of the media, as independent voices struggle to reach into the mainstream.

The outcome of the vote remains uncertain and depends on the vote of a small number of MEPs who might still be swayed. For more information and If you want to take action, check out the campaign site

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March 12, 2014 | Alan Cox

Openness and Privacy in Big Data

This is a guest blog from ORG Advisory Council member Alan Cox.

Balancing openness and privacy is often a false division and one that it seems a lot of those involved with a big data agenda either don't understand or choose not to.

Big data people are obsessed with putting everything they can into their system and crunching it to the point they have no idea how the answer arose. The fact they haven't got a clue why their system reaches an answer is a problem in itself but it also means they haven't got a clue whether the stuff they threw into it was important. In a lot of cases openness and privacy and doing exciting things with data is not a balancing act but a question of proper implementation, ownership and control. The latest NHS insurance data fiasco could have been handled far better if the insurance businesses had paid the NHS to do the crunching. There was no need for the NHS to hand insurance companies vast quantities of sensitive personal data that could trivially be de-anonymized.

Had the NHS kept the data it could instead have provided the insurers with the results they needed, and also kept the ability to use that knowledge to improve the NHS as well. Instead it sold on the data for peanuts to allow a commercial business to put up its insurance premiums. All the benefits promised by data sharing are there for the NHS to achieve by doing the crunching for third parties and keeping the results open.

Our universities for years operated on the model that the state paid researchers to write papers for free that went into commercial journals who then charged us to read them. Open journals are now fixing this. How sad and ironic would it be for the NHS to give our personal data to researchers for peanuts so that they can use it to make the NHS pay vast amounts for overpriced patented drugs based upon that data.

Such parasitic bottom feeding from open content is not new. In the rest of the world beyond government we solve it with 'share alike' licensing. At the very least any use of NHS and other government open data should be a share-a-like fashion. Allowing people to freeload off public data enables amazing things to be done, but we don't have to allow the mega-corporations to sell us back our own data.

Likewise we've had not-so-open data messes including abuse of the DVLA database. This could have been mostly prevented by having a processing system where the DVLA forwards claims from approved parties, or meeting an approved form rather than giving out drivers personal data to random people.

Who manages the bits and who is trusted to manage the bits is key. This is why it is so important that people are able to keep control of the use of their personal data. This is becoming increasingly evident as not only are current "pseudonymisation" techniques completely inadequate but the mathematicians tell us that the problem is for the most part not soluble.

Big data and open data is also part of open governance. Open data isn't however enough to achieve the proper holding of the state to account.

Instead I would argue the parallel is actually in openness in science. In the ideal world a conclusion made from data in government should be - based on open data - based on a published policy which is open and transparent - sufficient that a third party can run the data set and policy and duplicate the result - sufficient that a third party should be able to demonstrate flaws in the policy and run the data set to produce their result - sufficient that a third party should be able to run different data sets (eg what if sets, or differing sources) and generate a comparison result

For personal data this is going to raise some interesting challenges - how do you authenticate conclusions drawn upon personal data, who do you trust to validate the raw data-sets you can't share ? Open data and policy is not the same as decision making and we need to be careful because it's clear that many of our politicians do not understand science, and also do not understand the distinction between scientific results and their job. The obvious example is drug policy. Instead of saying "we acknowledge the science, but the public want otherwise" politicians repeatedly attack the data. The current government spends enormous effort attacking anyone who dares disagree with them, or any data which shows they are not doing the optimal thing, without it seems understanding that their job isn't public school bully but to provide actual policy based upon informed understanding of both the evidence and of the desires of those whom they represent.

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March 12, 2014 | Javier Ruiz

Open Rights Group at RightsCon

ORG participated in RightsCon, an international conference organised by Access that saw 700 participants convening in San Francisco to talk about censorship, surveillance and digital rights in general. Many workshops focused on the activities of less democratic countries, such as the use of targeted malware against activists by the Vietnamese government. But quite a few of the panels also discussed the pervasive surveillance by Western nations revealed by Edward Snowden.

I presented our successful crowdfunding efforts with in a panel with Indiegogo among others. I also held several meetings and workshops with groups campaigning against mass surveillance in the US, Latin America and Asia.

The day after RightsCon, I participated in a satellite event, the Responsible Data Forum. The Forum is an effort to develop useful tools and strategies for dealing with the ethical, security and privacy challenges facing data-driven advocacy. ORG's contribution centred on the challenges around open data and privacy.

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March 10, 2014 | Ruth Coustick-Deal

Support ORG's Censorship Monitoring Project

ORG are building tools to monitor the effects of default filtering in the UK

Can you join us now to help keep this project going?

We want to end the UK-wide censorship system of web blocking by holding ISPs and the Government accountable.

We know that default filters prevent people accessing important and legal information. Over-blocking is a serious and unavoidable effect of filtering.  Yet ISPs give website owners and customers minimal information on why and what is being blocked, or how to report problems.

This is why ORG's Censorship Monitoring project is building tools to monitor and challenge filtering.

You can already report overblocking on our website,, but we want to do much more. This tool will check automatically whether the URLs you submit can be reached via all major UK fixed line ISPs and mobile networks. Future versions will let you explore the extent and history of filtering in the UK and will publish the raw data for you to reuse.

This work is only possible thanks to the generosity of the tech activism community. ORG volunteers are giving their time, Bytemark Hosting are donating the server and Andrews & Arnold are subscribing the project up to all the other ISPs.

Can you join them?

ORG merchandise and branded itemsJoin ORG now and double your gift

We've been offered up to £3000 in matched funding to support this project. Please help us keep the work going. We've only got enough funding to cover project management for 3 months. But with this matched funding gift you can make that 6 and double the impact of your donation!

For every £1 you give we'll get £2, whether that's through joining up for a regular Direct Debit or giving a one-off donation. If you join up to ORG, your donation for the first year will be doubled.

Join by Direct Debit


Donate with Paypal

What are the benefits to being an ORG supporter?

  • You'll get discounts to all our ticketed events
  • Give £5/month or more and you'll get a free ORG t-shirt!
  • You'll get a copy of our latest reports and ORG stickers to show your support
  • Vote (or stand!) in board elections
  • You'll help influence our policy and direction throughout the year
  • You'll join an engaged community of activists taking direct action to stand up for digital rights

Why join ORG? 

ORG are a small organisation but we punch well above our weight. Besides defending digital rights in the courts, we've done considerable work on surveillance, privacy, copyright, open data and data protection.

  • We're working with a huge coalition of campaigners and civil liberties groups to generate a mass joint campaign against state surveillance as revealed by Edward Snowden
  • We're running a legal challenge at the European Court of Human Rights, arguing that the Government's authoritarian surveillance practices have been unlawful.
  • We successfully campaigned against the Snoopers' Charter for 2 years and made sure it was dropped
  • We produced our Digital Surveillance report offering reasonable alternatives to proposed investigatory powers
  • We won Human Rights Campaigner of the Year at the 2012 Liberty awards

How do I join?

Joining by Direct Debit is the best way for us.

You can also set up a PayPal subscription, but we prefer Direct Debits: it’s cheaper for ORG to process and means more of your hard earned cash can make a difference.

Student? Join for only £5/year - click here

If you want to help make this project real you can learn more about how to get involved here:

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March 07, 2014 | Jim Killock

The world we want and how we get there

Today we've published on our about page a new definition of the world we want to see, explaining how we are working to achieve our aims.

We wrote this short statement of our aims, objectives and values after asking all our supporters what you thought we should be working on, and what you thought our values are. We think it's a real call to arms:

We uphold human rights like free expression and privacy. We condemn and work against repressive laws or systems that deny people these rights.
We campaign, lobby, go to court – whatever it takes to build and support a movement for freedom in the digital age. We believe in coalition, and work with partners across the political spectrum to support an informed population of Internet users who understand and fight for their rights in the digital age.
We scrutinize and critique the policies and actions of governments, companies, and other groups as they relate to the Internet. We warn the public when policies – even well-intentioned ones – stand to undermine the freedom to use the Internet to make a better society.

It's the first major result of our strategy work, which this year has involved ORG talking to all of our supporters, local groups, partners and allies, as well as our staff, board and Advisory Council about our work and our future.

On April 12, many of our supporters and volunteers will be meeting to discuss our future. We're looking at quite a few options for new projects and initiatives, and thinking hard about how we grow over the next three years.

We want to involve you in two ways. Firstly, if you're a long term volunteer and want to come to the strategy day, let me know as there are a few places left. Secondly, we will be sending a poll to all our supporters asking you how much you like the new ideas. This will help inform our discussions in April.

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February 28, 2014 | Javier Ruiz

ICO Survey on the Code of Practice on Anonymisation

The Information Commissioner's Office is asking for feedback on their Code of Practice on 'anonymisation', but the survey does not ask the right questions. We explain the issues.

The ICO survey on the Code of Practice on Anonymisation closes today.

Asking for comments and feedback on the code is a positive move, but the survey is not balanced to capture a variety of opinions. For example it asks whether the code explains the benefits of anonymisation, but not whether it explains the risks. And it doesn't.

The survey also has space for comments on the style and language of the code, but not on the content, which is surely at least as important.

The code itself is a good initiative but it falls short in certain areas. For example, some of the concepts are not properly explained.

“We draw a distinction between anonymisation techniques used to produce aggregated information, for example, and those – such as pseudonymisation – that produce anonymised data but on an individual-level basis.”

Presenting pseudonymisation – which involves converting transparent identifiers such as names into reference codes - as a proper anonymisation technique could lead to dangerous releases of personal information. In many contexts we would argue that pseudonymous data should have the same levels of protection as fully identifiable data.

In general, the code presents an excessively optimistic narrative that could encourage risks to be downplayed. The current debate on is a good example of this.

The code should stress that effective anonymisation is possible, but it is hard to achieve and we should be very careful when releasing data.

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