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The Premier League, which comprises the UK's wealthiest football clubs, obtained a high court order last month blocking a Swedish website that streams football games. Since the block was put in place, media reports have suggested that it additionally knocked out access to websites such as the Radio Times, which were not subject to the court order. The ISPs wipe their hands of any blame. But case law from the European Court of Human Rights suggests that these instances are violations of free speech rights.

This was the case Premier League versus BT, B Sky B, Everything Everywhere, TalkTalk, Telefonica and Virgin Media. The Premier League sought an injunction against the ISPs, mandating them to block access to the web streaming site known as First Row. According to the claimants, First Row streams live sports broadcasts to which it does not own the rights.

The Premier League was asking the court to order blocks on IP addresses associated with First Row's domain name, and also with shared IP addresses. The Premier League told the court that it would not result in any 'overblocking' - this means blocking sites that have nothing to do with the order.

After the block was implemented, The Register and PC Pro both reported that users had been unable to access the Radio Times and other websites. The reason appeared to be that these sites shared a re-direct service with First Row, and the block on the IP address for the redirect service had also blocked the redirects to those other sites, hence restricting access to them.

This is the nub of the issue from a free speech rights perspective. It is not whether the users have the right to stream copyrighted content without paying, but it is whether the block, when implemented, also shuts off access to other content that has nothing to do with the order.

This is becoming a point where the British courts are seeming to disagree with European courts.

In the Premier League case, the judgement accepted that the requirement for the blocking was to protect the interests of the wealth football industry. The judgement considered that the free speech rights of consumers were protected because they could go elsewhere and pay it. What is interesting is that he merely accepted the assurance from the football industry lawyers that no overblocking would occur.

What's also interesting about this case is the apparent collusion between the two industries concerned. The judgement states that the details of the order had been pre-agreed between the two sides. Of course, BT is no longer just an ISP - it now sells a sport (football) channel. Perhaps, it can no longer be seen as a neutral intermediary - can it?

In the case of Yildrim v Turkey, held in the European Court of Justice, the judge came to a different conclusion. The claimant was a website owner whose site had been barred by a block placed on GoogleSites in the Turkish courts. The block was aimed at a particular site accused of besmirching the name of Turkey's founding father, Atatürk. But when the block was implemented, it had the effect of also preventing access to other websites that were also hosted by GoogleSites.

The European Court judge ruled that the order had been over broad and that the block was a violation of the Article 10 right to freedom of expression. The court also said that such orders must be narrowly interpreted.

The Premier League ruling treads a very fine line and arguably it fails to consider the balance of possible interference with legitimate content versus the rights of big business. It could be the slippery slope - blocking is a form a censorship, and the UK has not had censorship of this type since it was banned in 1695.


For more on free speech rights and the question of interference, see my latest book A Copyright Masquerade: How Corporate Lobbying Threatens Online Freedoms

For historical insights into copyright and censorship see The Copyright Enforcement Enigma

This is an original article from Iptegrity.com and reflects research that I have carried out. If you refer to it or to its content, please cite my name as the author, and provide a link back to iptegrity.com. Media and Academics - please cite as Monica Horten, 2013, Premier League web block - a strike against free speech rights? 29 August 2013. Commercial users - please contact me.

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About Iptegrity

Iptegrity.com is the website of Dr Monica Horten. I am an  independent policy advisor: online safety, technology and human rights. In April 2024, I was appointed as an independent expert on the Council of Europe Committee of Experts on online safety and empowerment of content creators and users. I am a published author, and post-doctoral scholar. I hold a PhD from the University of Westminster, and a DipM from the Chartered Institute of Marketing. I cover the UK and EU. I'm a former tech journalist, and an experienced panelist and Chair. My media credits include the BBC, iNews, Times, Guardian and Politico.

Iptegrity.com is made available free of charge for non-commercial use. Please link back and attribute Dr Monica Horten.  Contact me to use any of my content for commercial purposes.