The Closing of the Net  "original and valuable"  Times Higher Education

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Legislation on file-sharing, a rights-agency, and a copyright tax were all in the bundle of measures announced in the Digital Britain report today. Less widely reported is the policy on filtering and traffic shaping. And indeed, according to the ISP industry, it could have been much, much worse.


The UK government released its report on Digital Britain today, and with it came the recommendations from the peer-to-peer file sharing consultation it held last autumn.


It plans to establish a civil enforcement framework for online copyright infringement which will include:

**A new law to force ISPs to warn file-sharers about copyright infringement - based on information supplied by rights-holders; and to pass back to the rights-holders details of persistent file-sharers, who may be taken to court.

**A rights-agency that will enable the industries to "work together to prevent unlawful use by consumers". It is not

clear what real regulatory function this agency will have, and it could just become another quasi- government agency with no purpose (frequently described in the UK as a ‘quango.')

**A tax on Internet use  - in the document this is described as a ‘contribution' from the rights-holder and Internet companies to fund the ‘rights agency'. But The Times newspaper described it as a £20 tax on every broadband connection. A quick calculation indicates  a figure of £260 million per year that could be raised by this new tax - which, in my opinion, means it is a stealth tax, and it will go straight into the Treasury to help pay off the country's growing debt.


There are certain very clear differences from the French approach and the Creation and Internet  law. A ‘code of practice' will include standards of evidence and appeals procedures, and - importantly - cost-sharing between ISPs and rights-holders. ISPs will collect information from the notification data, and importantly not from retained traffic data. The allegations against file sharers will be subject to ‘reasonable levels of proof' from rights-holders. Obviously, we do not know how ‘reasonable' the levels will be, but the wording is an acknowledgement that there will be a standard of evidence that  rights-holders  have to supply. There will be a consultation prior to legislation, and there will also be an impact assessment and a cost-benefit analysis.  


From the Internet industry viewpoint, the proposals seem to be  better than expected. The Linx (London Internet Exchange) website says that the tone is improved over the aggressive attacks on ISPs by government ministers just one year ago. And it is pleased that an expectation for rights-holders to change their business model is becoming more central to the government's policy.


And it seems that the British music industry is less than happy with the outcome. The Times quotes BPI chief , Geoff Taylor,  as saying “It is hard to see how letter-sending alone will achieve the aim of significantly reducing illegal filesharing which the government has set itself..."


However, something that risks being overlooked, is the statement on net neutrality. The report is taking the side of the telcos in respect of "traffic management". Is the UK setting up an environment where ISPs will give preferential  treatment to web services   in return for premium fees?


"Net neutrality is sometimes cited by various parties in defence of internet freedom, innovation and consumer choice....Ofcom has in the past acknowledged the claims in the debate but have also acknowledged that ISPs might in future wish to offer guaranteed service levels to content providers in exchange for increased fees. In turn this could lead to differentiation of offers and promote investment in higher-speed access networks. Net neutrality regulation might prevent this sort of innovation."


What the report's authors - and Ofcom - forget, is that Internet users  are citizens, and that is not always the same thing as being  consumers. And it is the citizen's rights that need to be protected.



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