The Coalition Has No Digital Rights Policy

Loz Kaye's picture

The Pirate Party movement believes that the way information is shared and controlled is a key fight in 21st century politics. The Internet gives us tools to participate in a more active and equal way in culture, political life and the economy - if we are able to grasp them. These tools, which we could only have only dreamt about two decades ago, have opened up a new front in politics. Every key story this year has had a digital dimension; from the riots to “Hackgate”, from the Middle East to failings in our education system. We all should have the right to take part in the peaceful information revolution.

Yet, at every turn, the coalition has been exposed as having no coherent policy on digital rights. Nothing illustrates this better than its zig-zag course on Internet filtering and website blocking.

A key moment was the BT/NewzBin2 case. A clutch of Hollywood studios took BT to court in order to force them to restrict access to the website "NewzBin2". The site in question provides only links to film downloads – it does not even host copyrighted content. The studios were extremely pleased to have the court find in their favour, seeing it as a crucial precedent. They were beginning to lose patience with how slowly the Government was implementing the Digital Economy Act, and saw this as a convenient shortcut. Culture and communications minister Ed Vaizey enthusiastically welcomed the judgment – ironically enough, online, by tweeting: ”Interesting judgment in Newzbin case, should make it easier for rights holders to prevent piracy”. He went on to continue defending the result, and his statement, from a barrage of replies. 

This was not just a personal view, or a casual evening's tweeting. It is the end product of the Department for Culture, Media and Sport’s approach to filesharing, as shaped by big media. Obviously the case has profound implications – it is now possible to get an injunction to force Internet service providers to censor websites in the UK. The question is how this will play out in practice, will we see a kind of site by site legal skirmish? Clearly no-one wants to see this – apart from lawyers, perhaps.

Not satisfied, however, rights holders from the music industry to the Premier League immediately began piling on the pressure to ‘streamline’ the process. Even before the Newzbin judgement, the Open Rights Group exposed secret meetings between these industry groups and Ed Vaizey. Proposals included “permanent injunctions on the basis that a ‘Council’ and ‘expert body’ have come to the view that the evidence submitted by copyright owners is valid and the blocking access to the website is appropriate.” Not just censorship, but censorship by quango. 

However at least we thought we knew where we stood - the Government department responsible has a view on web blocking, and believes that it is proportionate and effective.

And then again, perhaps not. Just days after the NewzBin2 case we heard a completely contradictory announcement, on the topic of the Digital Economy Act's own provisions for web blocking (easily overlooked given the furore over the Act's more headline-grabbing "3 strikes" elements). Media regulator Ofcom reported back on the act with the view that "blocking web addresses is not practical or desirable as a primary approach", and Vaizey’s culture ministry promptly announced it would no longer bring forward these reserve powers on site-blocking – though they still exist. The media focus on this story was reserved for Vince Cable, who called site blocking “cumbersome and unworkable”. This was presented as a victory for the Business Secretary. The Telegraph, who has not always been keen on Mr Cable, even hailed him as ‘Saint Vince’ and said that he is “ready to fight for one of our basic human rights in the digital age”.

So it would appear that the Business department is on a full on collision course with the Culture and Media department, which cannot be in the interests of the digital economy. But frankly it seems more like the empty handing out of a few media brownie points. The NewzBin2 judgement makes the blocking proposals in the Digital Economy Act irrelevant, anyway. Unless ‘Saint Vince’ is set to take on Hollywood and tell them their injunctions are cumbersome and unworkable, his portrayal as some kind of digital hero is just hot air.

As if any further confirmation was needed that the government's policy on digital rights, and freedom of speech is entirely made up on the fly, along came the riots and a classic knee-jerk reaction to the use of social media. As I observed in my article for ORGzine on the subject, one of the few concrete parts of David Cameron’s statement to the recalled House of Commons was a full on attack on social media. It was carefully worded, but the thrust was that the Prime Minister thought further action is necessary to combat the “ill” done by status updates. 

At this point things took a turn for the authoritarian, with MP Louise Mensch saying it was "acceptable to shut Twitter and Facebook off for an hour or two”. It is also worth pointing out that she is a member of the influential Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee. Whatever happened to "cumbersome and unworkable”? Let alone the question of who would be responsible for such a shut down, how they would be accountable, what the threshold of perceived threat should be to make such a decision warranted, or how it could be reversed. 

It took another two weeks until the next u-turn, when Theresa May met with representatives from the industry and police, and it became clear that ministers were rowing back from an untenable position. It was allowed to trickle out that the Home Secretary started the meeting expressing the view that the "government has no intention of restricting internet services" – although, if you've been following the u-turns carefully, you'll notice that the government is still happy to leave that job to Hollywood and their lawyers. 

On the day of the meeting, Nick Clegg gave an interview in which he was widely trailed as saying: ''We are not going to become like Iran or China. We are not going to suddenly start cutting people off''. 

What he actually began by saying on Cameron’s proposal was “We have not said as a government we are going to do this. All we have said is that we will look at whether it might be right to do this”. In other words, despite the media management, this is an endorsement of the Prime Minister’s position. What is evident is that Nick Clegg is only permitted to speak out on digital (or human) rights when it suits the Tories, while the Lib Dems are silent when it matters most. I don't personally count sitting on the front bench and looking uncomfortable as a contribution to defending digital rights. 

We might be tempted to shrug this all off as spin, but it does not amount to credible government. The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats must decide once and for all if they are willing to commit to a true coalition. Clegg’s party – and its activists – can no longer pretend to be both in office and in opposition.

Let's pick up where we left off: Theresa May's stated position was that the Government has "no intention of restricting Internet services". Unfortunately, this is directly contradicted by her own ministry. The Home Office's "Prevent" strategy on terrorist radicalisation says “Internet filtering across the public estate is essential.” Notice that the context for this statement is the same as that of the riots: threats to public order and the safety of British citizens. Yet the conclusions are strikingly different. What it also shows is that the confusion in government policy is not just the result of two parties expressing different viewpoints; even individual ministries can not agree the same line from month to month.

I am fully aware that there is a profound difference between downloading an illegal copy of “Swagger Jagger” and organising a terrorist attack online. But the point that site blocking is “cumbersome and unworkable”, in Vince Cable’s words, not because it is politically difficult, but because it is both technically and practically impossible. This is something the Pirate Party has been repeating ever since we were formed, but if the government chooses to ignore us, then they might care to listen to Google’s Eric Schmidt: 

“For every... filter there’s a work-around. For every blacklist there’s a proxy server. And for every well-meaning attempt to limit the bad stuff there is good stuff that gets knocked out too.”

If any law has embodied government's difficult relationship to the Internet it must be the Digital Economy Act. With clear provisions to disconnect whole families, including provably innocent people, from the Internet, this Act was a sure fire way to sabotage, not build, the digital economy. Rushed through in the dying days of a discredited parliament, the Act remains a real cause of anger it seems Westminster has still failed to understand. Despite the hopes of some in the grassroots of the Liberal Democrat party, the coalition is now a serious obstacle to progress on this issue.

An Early Day motion (EDM1913), noting the a UN report which categorically stated that disconnection clauses were in violation of international human rights law, received much support – in fact, more MPs signed the motion than voted against the Digital Economy Act. But what it made crystal clear was how few Conservative MPs were willing to put their name to it. The brutal truth is that the Tories are unlikely to give the legislative time to getting rid of the Act, let alone vote for any change. 

Worse still, it has been recently revealed that the Government actually asked Ofcom to make Digital Economy Act appeals harder. It also wants to rule out a public consultation – once again trying to do deals away from the public eye. I suspect it is actually this fear of the power technology can give us to hold our representatives to account that drives alarm about the Internet in the corridors of power.

The ongoing farce of the swinging positions makes one thing clear – there is no common view in the government on the Internet. What is all the more extraordinary is that they and, for that matter, the media do not even seem to have noticed. 

Either the coalition can continue down the path to ever increasing control or they can start listening and embrace the idea of digital rights. It is time for them to choose.

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