Why we’re joining the black-out protest

Open Rights Group today blanked out its landing page in support of protests against two IP-related laws currently being discussed in the USA. Similar black outs and protests are happening on US websites such as Wikipedia, WordPress, Reddit and Google.

The two bills in question, which ostensibly aim to tackle internet piracy, are called the Stop Online Piracy Act (better known as SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act.

There are two reasons that Open Rights Group are supporting a protest aimed at US laws. First, the overly broad definitions and wording of the bills put any websites at risk of action from US authorities. Second, we face many of the issues with these copyright-related bills here in the UK: inappropriate enforcement measures, in particular website blocking; overly-broad or vague definitions and wording; and weaknesses in due process and redress. (For completists, we can throw in that they are also based in flawed evidence, just like copyright laws here.)

The discussions hosted last year by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, for example, initially included no input from those concerned with consumer or citizen interests, and initial proposals from rights-holders about how website blocking for copyright infringement should work outside of a proper court process embodied many of these concerns. Voluntary arrangements aren’t inherently bad. But excluding people or view points representing broader concerns about due process and proportionality of enforcement online and freedom of expression can only lead to lop-sided arrangements. Those discussions are ongoing, and have only recently started to seriously engage with ORG and these problems. We wrote about this process many times last year – the most recent updates are here, here and here.

We hope that focusing on the issues with the proposals currently on the table in the US will not only support opposition to some very flawed bills, but will help this year’s round of IP enforcement policy debates be more constructive and less damaging to the legitimate, free flow of information online. The Foreign Secretary William Hague recently told ORG that the UK took principles of freedom of expression and privacy online very seriously. We hope this helps emphasise how these commitments start at home.

You can read a letter that a number of international civil society organisations sent to Senator Harry Reid, setting out our concerns, here. There’s an earlier letter, sent in November, about SOPA here.