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Newzbin, the DEA, and the Great Wall of BT – A Mixed Bag for the MPA?

August 4, 2011

Further progress was made in the Newzbin saga last week when the High Court ordered BT to prevent its subscribers from accessing the website. You may recall that the site had hopped abroad to the Seychelles, escaping the reach of the UK courts (or so it thought). However, despite its emigration, the Motion Picture Association has succeeded in finding another way to attack its user base.

The blocking order, the first of its kind in the UK, requires BT to implement technology similar to that used to block sites featuring child abuse. The technology works via a mechanism similar to email SPAM blockers you might use yourself, or web browser plugins used by many to hide adverts on web pages. The ISP will return to the courtroom in October to iron out the details, but in the meantime the case is suggested by commentators to have been partly behind a recent Digital Economy Act (DEA) u-turn.

One of the significant provisions of the DEA, heralded by some as a key weapon for copyright holders, was intended to allow the blocking of infringing websites. Not implemented in full by the DEA, the details were still to be finalised by secondary legislation. However, following an announcement by the Business Secretary Vince Cable it seems this may never happen, as Ofcom is to review the policy. Echoing the not-uncommon opinion that the DEA is outdated before it has even had an impact, Mr. Cable said “We’ve discovered that the drafting of the original laws, which took place a year or so ago, were not tight”.

A real problem with the intersection of copyright law and technology is the phenomenal pace at which technology develops, in stark contrast with the gears of the legislature. A mixed bag all round, with the film industry cheering the result of the Newzbin case on the one hand, but unhappy with the possible loss of the DEA’s teeth on the other, some believe that blocking measures may not even be feasible with BT’s current technology.

James Blessing, a member of the Internet Service Providers’ Association remarked that “Trying to put Newzbin and other sites into the same blocking technology would be a bit like shutting down the M1. It is not designed to do that.”

Popular concerns include flood-gates and censorship – “What will qualify a site to be worthy of blocking? Who makes the decisions about what people are allowed to see online?” asks Peter Bradwell, a campaigner for the Open Rights Group, who says of the ruling: “if the goal is boosting creators’ ability to make money from their work then we need to abandon these technology naive measures, focus on genuine market reforms, and satisfy unmet consumer demand”.

While Mr. Blessing’s statement may be true as far as CleanFeed goes, the technology will likely be available to implement the blocks in the near future. However, as with most DRM (even DRM applied to an entire country) those with enough determination will find a way through the wall.

In the meantime, it seems that the internet, an invention aimed at breaking down barriers, is slowly becoming cluttered with ‘walls’ – firewalls (not criticising virus protection); pay-walls; the ‘great firewall of China’; and now this. Where next?