11 December 2009

Mandelson's Power to Censor the Net

I and many others have already noted that the proposed Digital Economy Bill gives far too many sweeping powers to the government. According to this detailed analysis, looks like there's one more clause to worry about:

What is the problem with clause 11 that I am getting so alarmed about it? It amends the Communications Act 2003 to insert a new section 124H which would, if passed, give sweeping powers to the Secretary of State. It begins:

(1) The Secretary of State may at any time by order impose a technical obligation on internet service providers if the Secretary of State considers it appropriate in view of—

Pausing there. Note that this says nothing at all about copyright infringement. For example the power could be used to:

* order ISP's to block any web page found on the Internet Watch Foundation's list
* block specific undesireable sites (such as wikileaks)
* block specific kinds of traffic or protocols, such as any form of peer-to-peer
* throttle the bandwidth for particular kinds of serivce or to or from particular websites.

In short, pretty much anything.

And how might that be used?

The definition of a "technical obligation" and "technical measure" are inserted by clause 10:

A "technical obligation", in relation to an internet service provider, is an obligation for the provider to take a technical measure against particular subscribers to its service.

A "technical measure" is a measure that— (a) limits the speed or other capacity of the service provided to a subscriber; (b) prevents a subscriber from using the service to gain access to particular material, or limits such use; (c) suspends the service provided to a subscriber; or (d) limits the service provided to a subscriber in another way.

As you can see blocking wikileaks is simply a matter of applying a technical measure against all subscribers of any ISP.

Hidden away inside the Bill, there's unlimited - and arbitrary - censorship of any site the Secretary of State takes against:

Surely something must limit this power you ask? It seems not. The Secretary of State may make an order if "he considers it appropriate" in view of:

(a) an assessment carried out or steps taken by OFCOM under section 124G; or (b) any other consideration.

Where "any other consideration" could be anything. To their credit the Tories do seem to have realised that this particular alternative is overly permissive. Lord Howard of Rising and Lord de Mauley have proposed (in the first tranche of amendments proposed that the "or" be replaced by an "and".

What astonishes me is that there is no obligation for the Secretary of STate to even publish such an order, let alone subject it to the scrutiny of Parliament, yet he could fundamentally change the way the internet operates using it. Other orders made under other parts of the Bill will have to be made by statutory instrument and most will require Parliamentary approval. Not this one.

If this goes through, we are in deep trouble, people....

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