01 August 2011

Why the UK Cover-up of ISP Spying Proposal?

The documents obtained by FoI requests that I referred to in an earlier post today have proved richer than we expected:

Previously confidential documents detailing Universal Music’s meetings with the former UK government over the Digital Economy Act are revealing a whole lot more than the pair intended. Blacked-out sections now uncovered show that Universal believed that ISPs could spy on their users and hand over information to rightsholders in order for them to sue.

Here's the relevant paragraph that was blacked out in the supplied PDF:

LG: Universal have entered into an arrangement with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Virgin to target legitimate broadband users with a £10 "all you can eat" offer. There is a commercial risk with this strategy, which could be like "putting a Coca Cola pipe in your house which would then supply the whole street". In return for a fixed fee revenue share Virgin have agreed to anti-piracy measures, including pop-up warnings on screens. As ISPs can monitor the amount of power used by specific users and the sites connected to, it is possible for ISPs to pass on any details to owners of particular rights, who could then get take legal action.

"LG" is Lucian Grainge (CEO, Universal Music Group International).

Now, the idea that he wanted ISPs to spy on users as a matter of course (using Deep Packet Inspection, presumably) is extraordinary, and I'm sure we'll be seeing some interesting legal analyses of that. But I want to consider another question here. By what right did the UK Government try to censor that embarrassing admission?

The FoI covering letter lists various possibilities for such censorship:

Please note that some material has been considered against the following exemptions:

Section 35 (1a) Formulation of government policy
Section 35 (1b) Ministerial communications
Section 40 Personal information
Section 43 Commercial interests

I presume that it was under the last of these that the material was redacted. Looking more closely at the conditions, as explained in the letter:

Section 43 sets out that information is exempted from the right to know if:

The information is a trade secret, or
Release of the information is likely to prejudice the commercial interest of any person (A person may be an individual, a company, the public authority itself, or any other legal entity


This is a qualified exemption. A public authority can only refuse to provide the information if it believes that the public interest in withholding disclosure, outweighs the public interest in disclosing it.

The public interest in knowing about plans to spy on its Internet connection certainly outweighs the public interest in not disclosing (which is zero).

So is this just another case of the UK Government taking the side of the recording industries again, and to hell with the public and their rights, including the right to know what is happening in meetings with their government?

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