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

British Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt, having been wined and dined by the copyright industries,  has said tonight that he wants to bring in a regime of blocking for websites, search engines, ISPs and hosts. The primary reason is to protect the interests of the copyright industries.  However, he includes a proposal which is tantamount to censorship for ‘protecting children’. His proposals suggest blocking  on a  scale that has not yet been introduced anywhere except China.


Jeremy Hunt's comments will come as a shock to those who believed the government line on the Hargreaves report. Indeed, Mr Hunt repeats the deception in his speech. The government may have ‘accepted’ Professor Hargreaves recommendations, but sadly, I believe this was a cover for the draconian enforcement proposals, worthy of any tin-pot dictator,  which Mr Hunt tonight officially unveiled.

Mr Hunt wants to set up a process which will by-pass the courts, and use an administrative body to hand out the blocking orders at the request of the rights-holders. Orders could be given to the ISPs or to search engines such as Google.  Blocks will come down in a matter of hours, if the rights-holders – and Ofcom – get their way, with little opportunity for website owners to challenge the order.  His speech was along the lines  that I recently  analysed in the recent Ofcom report - see  Madame La Guillotine 2.0 – designed by Ofcom

An additional proposal which I have not seen before was to make ISPs impose so-called ‘parental controls’ as a default  - that means everyone taking a new Internet connection would have a censorship regime imposed on them, and possibly would not even know it was there or understand what it is. In those circumstances, they would not know how to ask for it to be removed, or what content they were being denied. That is why this kind of move is of concern for democracy.

Jeremy Hunt’s web blocking proposals make a mockery of another part of his speech which purports to protect freedom of expression. The only expression which Mr Hunt is protecting is that of large Amercian movie companies, and a number of  obscenely rich pop stars. 

Mr Hunt was speaking to a receptive audience of old media at the Royal Television Society, and relying on the presence of faithful, non-challenging reporters like those from the BBC.

Mr Hunt’s speech also gives the lie to other government statements and attempts by civil servants to draw up a viable policy for the Internet in Britain.  I left a meeting yesterday where a British government official declared that ‘no blocking’ is the default policy option*. I believe the official was genuine.

It is understood that Mr Hunt has been  receiving considerable corporate entertainment from the copyright industries, who have been pouring their demands into his ear. Thus,  Mr Hunt is over-riding his officials to satisfy the large entertainment companies, and jeopardising any serious policy-making.

What is especially  unbelievable about Jeremy  Hunt’s speech, is his cynical abduction of the ideas of  John Stuart Mill for the most un-libertarian purpose. Mill was not writing in favour of corporate industries exercising control over the individual’s lives – indeed I suggest he would have been quite abhorred by the copyright industries’ proposals.


*The meeting was held under Chatham House rules, so I am not able to give any more detail. However, the statement that ‘no blocking is the default option’ was clarified to the entire meeting by a British government official.


The text of British Culture Minister, Jeremy Hunt's speech to the Royal Television Society on 14 September 2011 - extract regarding website and Internet blocking  

However when it comes to material that is being unlawfully distributed online, we need a different approach.

The first argument we need to nail is the idea that tackling this problem is an assault on the “freedom” of the internet.

John Stuart Mill defined liberty as the freedom to do anything provided it does not impinge on the freedom of others. Unlawfully distributing copyrighted material is theft – and a direct assault on the freedoms and rights of creators of content to be rewarded fairly for their efforts.

Fundamental to our concept of both freedom and the law is that it should apply to everyone without fear or favour. This means it must apply equally in the virtual world as in the physical world.

We do not allow certain products to be sold in the shops on the high street, nor do we allow shops to be set up purely to sell counterfeited products. Likewise we should be entitled to make it more difficult to access sites that are dedicated to the infringement of copyright. Sites that are misleading customers and denying creators fair reward for their work.

Let me be clear: the government has no business protecting old models or helping industries that have failed to move with the times. So we strongly welcomed the proposals by Professor Hargreaves to help the UK lead the way with new business models by setting up a Digital Copyright Exchange.

But those new models will never be able to prosper if they have to compete with free alternatives based on the illegal distribution of copyrighted material. We see this in South Korea, where according to the Economist a proliferation of new business models for content distribution have emerged following the introduction of anti-piracy laws. The result?  Locally produced music content has now risen to 76% of domestic CD sales.

The devil of course is in the detail. But we need to explore all options to make life more difficult for sites that ignore the law. I believe these could include:

    • A cross-industry body, perhaps modeled on the Internet Watch Foundation, to be charged with identifying infringing websites against which action could be taken;
    • A streamlined legal process to make it possible for the courts to act quickly;
    • A responsibility on search engines and ISPs to take reasonable steps to make it harder to access sites that a court has deemed contain unlawful content or promote unlawful distribution of content;
    • A responsibility on advertisers to take reasonable steps to remove their advertisements from these sites;
    • And finally a responsibility on credit card companies and banks to remove their services from these sites.

Experience in America shows that these goals can be achieved by voluntary agreements – but if not we will look at legislative solutions and include these in our forthcoming Communications Green Paper.

 Read : the full text of Jeremy Hunt's speech to the Royal Television Society.

Please attribute this article: Monica Horten (2011)  Culture Minister Jeremy Hunt’s Chinese-style web blocking plans  14 September 2011 .








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