Several decisions made today have far-reaching implications for every UK internet user. Telco quango Ofcom has effectively killed web-blocking reserve powers that were passed into law a year ago, by arguing that they probably won't work. The government also announced today that it is endorsing all the proposals made in Ian Hargreaves "Google Review" into intellectual property – which recommends a number of copyright exemptions, and weakening rights for individual creators, such as amateur and professional photographers. Further details for the implementation of the Digital Economy Act have been disclosed. And to add to your reading indigestion, the government has outlined an international IP strategy and a new IP crime policy.
Web-blocking dead for now
The Department of Culture, Media and Sport has said today that the government will not "bring forward regulations on site-blocking" established as reserve powers in the Digital Economy Act, following a technical Ofcom report. The ministry adds: "[W]e are keen to explore the issues raised by Ofcom's report and will be doing more work on what measures can be pursued to tackle online copyright infringement.
It added that it expects to publish the Initial Obligations Code shortly – a year after the initial timetable suggested – with the first warning letters to go out to copyright infringers at the end of 2012.
Ofcom's report effectively kicked web-blocking into the long grass – and showed the power of a quango to make and break laws. Ofcom examined various techniques and concluded that blocking "discrete URLs or web addresses is not practical or desirable as a primary approach". Ofcom instead recommends something critics might see as more draconian, however:
If site-blocking is adopted, it should be at the domain level.
Such a technique will become harder, Ofcom's report notes, when digital signing is more common. So it recommends examining further measures such as transparent proxy-blocking (used by the UK Internet Watch Foundation) or hybrid routing technology:
In the medium to longer term we consider that deep packet inspection techniques are likely to provide a more robust approach to blocking than DNS. Although costly to implement today, we would expect that costs will fall as the larger ISPs invest in DPI devices for other purposes. However, for it to be part of a legislative approach the cost burden for smaller ISPs would need careful evaluation as would legal concerns related to compatibility with privacy, data protection and interception rules.
Appealing will cost you
In related news, lobbying by ISPs has succeeded in freeing them from paying for the setup costs for a copyright tribunal, designed to give copyright-infringing broadband users an appeals process. Under the Digital Economy Act, persistent copyright infringers can appeal every letter they receive from their ISP. Music industry lobbyists didn't realise until it was too late that punters could do this endlessly – at great cost to the taxpayer, to ISPs and the rights-holders, but at no cost to themselves. The DCMS is proposing that a £20 fee, refundable, be attached to every appeal.
And as widely reported yesterday, Vince Cable formally announced that the Coalition government is blessing all the proposals advanced in Ian Hargreaves IP review, the "Google Review".
Although the review is supposed to look at patents, trademarks and copyright, it is copyright that consumed most of the academics' time.
Copyright exemptions will be made for private copying, parody, and using databases. The government proposes to weaken creators' rights to allow third parties to use unattributed "orphan" works. The latter measure was shot down a year ago, when it was pointed out almost every graphical work on the internet – illustrations or photographs – is an orphan, and large re-users of material such as the BBC strip these out on upload.
It's also pressing ahead with Hargreaves' one big idea – his Digital Copyright Exchange. The rights swap-shop would in theory reduce friction and costs for digital licensees, but any obligation to pitchfork rights-holders into surrendering their material – and their control over pricing – will get nowhere.
As I predicted, here, copyright is "a layer cake of complex international treaties that limit the scope of what national governments may actually do". Much of the debate is simply posturing – on all sides.
Cable said the government will outline a new "IP crime strategy" that covers counterfeit goods, trademarks and copyright infringement, and has also outlined its international IP policy.
Much more, including reaction, to follow. ®