Friday, 26 March 2010

Digital economy bill

Below is the letter I sent to my MP about the digital economy bill. For more info on the bill, have a look at..

The 38degrees site will help you write to your MP too.

Dear Mr Lloyd

Have you read the digital economy bill being rushed into law without debate?

It makes the owner of an internet connection liable for any copyright infringements that occur through its use, even if those infringements are carried out by someone unknown to the owner, without their knowledge.

Let's imagine an average household. Fred has wireless internet installed at home, but he's by no means an expert. His 13-year-old son knows far more than he does about the computer. Unfortunately for Fred, one of the things his son knows is how to download songs for free. He has a vague feeling that it's supposed to be wrong, but he's never really understood how - it's not like he's stealing them after all. Sadly, an infringement is an infringement and the kid will learn when Fred gets the first letter from the ISP. A couple of weeks later Fred's son invites a friend over to work on a school project. His friend brings his laptop, and it automatically connects to the wireless network. It then resumes what it was doing before he put it to sleep at his own house - namely downloading the torrent of the new Transformers film. Oh dear! Infringement two. Fred is now particularly tense - the second letter has made it quite clear he'll be disconnected next time, and he has no idea how to stop the computer letting his son download songs. Can you make the computer do that? He doesn't know, so he has to rely on his son's word. Unfortunately for him his technically-literate neighbour has hacked into Fred's wireless network and downloaded several films.

When Fred gets disconnected, the letter says he can appeal. But what can he say? He has no idea who downloaded that last batch of films. His son is adamant it wasn't him, or any of his friends. Fred doesn't have the technical knowledge to know where to begin proving his innocence.

It's fair to say I grew up with the Internet - I was "online" before the web had been invented - but even with that experience I couldn't prove Fred innocent either. His wireless router probably doesn't record information about the computers it connects to the Internet (mine doesn't), but even if it did all it could record would be the MAC address. This is effectively just a name, unique to each computer. The record would contain entries for Fred's computer, his son's computer, and a mysterious other computer, which was connected at the time of the infringement. Unfortunately even with this information Fred still can't prove his innocence as there's nothing to say he doesn't own the third computer too.

The fear of similar situations will mean public wireless internet will all but vanish. What cafe owner will take the risk? A technically literate one would realise the need to record extensive logs, which comes at a cost significant enough to make the free internet too expensive to be worth the effort.

Perhaps more important than the technical considerations is the fact we are talking about "proving innocence". If that concept in itself is not fundamentally wrong then it is surely a significant enough departure from the usual application of law that it deserves intense parliamentary scrutiny - don't you agree?

The music and film industries like to portray anyone disagreeing with their draconian copyright reform demands as freeloading "pirate" pseudo-anarchists who just don't like paying for things. This is simply not true - all of my technically-literate friends are against this bill, and all of us regularly buy music and films, whether in shops or online, through services like iTunes and Spotify.

In a leaked email (available at Richard Mollett, Director of Public Affairs at the BPI relates a "strange sense of detachment" amongst MPs regarding the digital economy bill. Apparently, MPs are "already resigned to the fact that they will have minimum input into the provisions". Are you already resigned to it Mr Lloyd?

Yours sincerely,
Chris Russell

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