Friday, 29 July 2011

Internet access and censorship

Mr Justice Arnold gave judgement yesterday in the case of Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation and Others v British Telecommunications plc. This concerned the Newzbin internet site, which is largely devoted to providing illegal downloads of films, in breach of copyright. A number of film companies sought an injunction against BT, which would require BT to block access to the site from their customers in England and Wales. Arnold J agreed to make such an order. The precise terms of the order will be settled at a further hearing to take place after the summer vacation in September.

The question to begin with is, why was this order necessary at all? Why not attack the source, namely Newzbin? The reason appears to be that the company and its internet site is located in the Seychelles. Either the film companies feel that the law of the Seychelles does not enable them to have the site closed down (an unlikely position), or that if they obtained such an order from the court in the Seychelles, Newzbin would just resite somewhere else, resulting in a never ending game of chase. The second is much the more likely reason, as such resiting has happened once already, the current Newzbin being already in its second incarnation.

I do not support breach of copyright. Although I do not watch films over the internet, I do stream audio, legally, via a paid-for site (Spotify) which has all the necessary copyright permissions and where a proportion of my subscription goes to the artists I listen to. Accepting the position that breach of copyright is wrong, the next question to ask is whether civil proceedings involving what amounts to a third party the internet service provider is the right way to do it.

This is because in such proceedings there is another and very important stakeholder unrepresented at the table, namely the public interest in the maintenance of freedom of access except on pressing public interest grounds which might override this right, and which is properly supervised and not done secretly. The important point here is that civil proceedings before a court are only concerned with whether a civil wrong is being committed, and if it is, what order should be made by the court to prevent it. Once on a test case such as this the court finds that there is a matter to be remedied under English civil law, a precedent is then set for other similar cases, and in theory there would be no need for further references to a court for a shut down of this kind: future blocking could simply be done by agreement.

This judgement is founded on a number of interacting pieces of legislative material, beginning with Council Directive 2001/29/EC (the Information Society Directive), as transposed into domestic law by the Copyright and Related Rights Regulations 2003 and Council Directive 2004/48/EC. The 2003 Regulations enable the court to grant an injunction "against a service provider, where that service provider has actual knowledge of another person using their service to infringe copyright" and "against a service provider, where that service provider has actual knowledge of another person using their service to infringe a performer’s property right". Arnold J thought the case fell within these grounds and that in the exercise of his discretion he should make such an injunction.

However, as mentioned the outcome of this case is that, on the principle of precedence in the law of England and Wales, the film companies could now in theory write to any internet service provider and ask them to block any particular site they do not like, and if they do not agree take the case to court and have their costs awarded against the ISP. ISPs do not like to spend their time in court, nor paying other parties' costs, particularly as they are not to blame, so they are likely in the end just to amend their terms and conditions of service with their customers so allowing them to block any site where requested by a copyright owner.

If it resulted in this, we would then have censorship without any checks of any kind, by a court or anyone else. This is wrong in my view. There has already been "feature creep" on this. The technology employed by BT to block customer access is called "CleanFeed". This was introduced by BT to prevent highly illegal internet child pornography being downloaded. Now by court order this originally limited purpose of child pornography is being extended to copyright infringement. Where next? And it invites the question, what is the difference between this new internet censorship in the UK and the "great firewall of China" established by the Chinese government?

The answer to the last point is no doubt that this one (Twentieth Century v BT) is about copyright infringement, and the other (Chinese censorship) is about political views. But where does this end? Whilst this case is based on a statutory provision (the 2003 Regulations), the court has a wider power at common law to injunct against civil wrongs, and there are many other grounds for tortious intervention which might exist under civil law. Should the ISPs next be required to block any site on receipt of a complaint from someone else that it, say, breaches their privacy? And after that?

This "what next" question has no obvious answer.

I think this area is too important to be developed by the courts unsupervised by appropriate controls applied via democratic processes, which need to be at least as good as the rights of appeal to a tribunal set out in the "three strikes and you are out" proposals of the Digital Economy Act 2010. That is itself a controversial Act with a number of shortcomings, but at least it provides for some safeguards for members of the public (and the public interest) as represented by the requirement for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to make safeguarding rules after balancing the rights of members of the public to information and freedom, and whether the complainant had got their facts right, before the "three strikes" procedure can come into effect. Furthermore Arnold J's decision on what amounts to "actual knowledge" with respect to each of their customers renders impotent the provision of section 17 of the 2010 Act empowering the Secretary of State by regulations to make provision "about the granting by a court of a blocking injunction in respect of a location on the internet which the court is satisfied has been, is being or is likely to be used for or in connection with an activity that infringes copyright", which could have contained appropriate safeguards.

The fact of the matter is that civil procedure does not deal with hidden unrepresented interests of this kind well and why should it, as civil procedure is based on the proposition that there is a dispute between two parties to be conducted in an adversarial manner, where costs are always at stake. The increased use by the courts of secret injunctions should be a warning to us on this. And it is simply not good enough for ISPs to make comfortable arrangements to introduce censorship by the back door under penalty of costs, which we may never get to hear about. We only know about this particular case because it required proceedings in open court. Later ones may not.

I have written to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to ask how the Secretary of State intends to deal with this. It will be interesting to see what he has to say.

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