05 April 2012

Our Imminent Summer of Digital Discontent

As you may have noticed, the weather is rather confused in the UK at the moment – one moment sweltering, the next freezing. But I predict this summer is certainly going to be hot, judging at least by what's going on in the world of digital rights.

First of all, there's ACTA. In a surprising but welcome decision, the INTA committee recommended that ACTA be voted on in the European Parliament, rather than referred to the European Court of Human Justice, as the European Commission is doing:

After an eventful process where a minority of pro-ACTA MEPs used procedural arguments to delay a decision, the EU Parliament's "International Trade" committee refused to refer ACTA to the EU Court of Justice. Such a referral would have delayed for 18 months the final vote on ACTA.

Respecting the original timetable, the rapporteur David Martin (S&D, UK) will now present a draft report to his colleagues on April 25th, 2012. This draft report will form the basis of the INTA committee's final recommendation to the rest of the Parliament on whether to consent to ACTA or to reject it.

The INTA committee, as well as the other committees working on opinion reports, will also resume their works on this illegitimate agreement.

That means we will need to contact our MEPs before the vote to make sure they understand why ACTA is a bad idea and should be rejected in the vote. Once that happens, the judgment from the ECJ will be irrelevant: ACTA will be rejected by Europe. And without Europe, ACTA as a whole is dead – hence the importance of convincing MEPs.

Still on the European front, there is the imminent revision of the “Intellectual Property Rights” Directive (IPRED). Although it's a little hard to know how the European Commission will play this in the light of the turbulence around ACTA, there's no reason to think that it will moderate its plans, which are pretty bad. Here's La Quadrature du Net's take on them:

the EU Commission released a communication on the digital single market covering most EU policies related to the Digital Agenda1. As this document suggests, the Commission is working on combating illegal gambling websites, which could take the form of censorship measures such as those implemented in France and other Member States2. Hypocritically, and probably to please the banking industry, the Commission does not even consider attacking illegal businesses' financial streams, which would be an effective way to tackle them. Instead, the Commission paves the way to censorship measures at the core of the network.

In the area of Copyright, the EU Commission sticks to the dangerous notion of “illegal content”, which doesn't mean anything by itself, except that the network will be programmed for enforcement. It is also pushing for extra-judicial “cooperation” between Internet actors, payment providers and entertainment industries, mirroring the very controversial Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), currently discussed in the US Congress.

Again, just because SOPA and PIPA are on hold does not mean that there won't be further pushes to get them or something like them through the US system. Indeed, just recently the US Copyright Czar (what a ridiculous job title) has released her annual report on copyright and its enforcement, and from that it's clear the US will be pushing for more SOPA-like laws.

Meanwhile, back in the EU, we have more bad ideas: making "the production or sale of devices such as computer programs designed for cyber-attacks, or which find a computer password by which an information system can be accessed, would constitute criminal offences."

That's daft because, of course, many legitimate security tools can be used to discover computer passwords, so this would instantly criminalise those. The obvious solution would have been to allow an exemption for research, but the people in the European Parliament don't seem to understand what they are doing (just for a change).

Meanwhile, back in Blighty, we have even more worrying stuff if this report from James Firth is to be believed – and unfortunately, his sources are generally pretty good – about the imminent Communications Bill Green Paper:

I'm told ISPs would become responsible for deciding what is and what isn't copyright infringement on their networks and blocking infringing content without intervention from a court.

Notice and takedown would be expanded so that a whole website or domain could be taken down on a mere allegation from rights holders that the domain was used "substantially" for copyright infringement.

And search engines would be asked to police results, maintaining both a blacklist of whole domains which would never appear in search results and a whitelist of preferred purveyors of e-entertainment who would always appear at the top of the search results.

Again, this is seriously clueless stuff – breaking the Internet search engines and allowing arbitrary site blocking at the drop of a hat. It's really extraordinary how Western governments are happy to introduce levels of censorship today that a decade or so ago would have been unthinkable.

Finally, just when you thought things couldn't get any worse, we have total, police-state surveillance being planned for the UK:

The government will be able to monitor the calls, emails, texts and website visits of everyone in the UK under new legislation set to be announced soon.

Internet firms will be required to give intelligence agency GCHQ access to communications on demand, in real time.

The Home Office says the move is key to tackling crime and terrorism, but civil liberties groups have criticised it. 


A new law - which may be announced in the forthcoming Queen's Speech in May - would not allow GCHQ to access the content of emails, calls or messages without a warrant.

But it would enable intelligence officers to identify who an individual or group is in contact with, how often and for how long. They would also be able to see which websites someone had visited.

Clearly, this is extreme stuff: every communication that we make would be recorded and accessible by the UK's intelligence services. Or rather, the supposedly intelligent intelligence services, for this kind of blanket surveillance is born of incompetence and laziness, the last resort of people unable to do their job under democratic conditions.

Instead, they use the usual cover of "terrorism" to justify these unprecedented measures, which they used before to introduce blanket CCTVs around our cities. Weren't they supposed to solve the problem? They didn't, and mass surveillance of communications won't either, which will then lead to yet more erosion of civil liberties in this countries. That's why we must stop this rot before it goes any further.

The good news is that the widespread outrage that has greeted this extreme proposal seems to have caused the coalition to pause in its plans, if only to regroup, with some mixed signals emerging about whether there will be a consultation before bringing them back. We need to be prepared to make cogent submissions to that if it happens, and to fight for it if it doesn't.

So, it's looking like it's going to be a long, very hot summer. Get those knotted handkerchiefs ready...

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