Photo: Gigabit Internet Cafe, one of the fastest Internet connections in Britain. (Lee Jordan)
Did you know that in UK gas and electricity is never cut off -- it is usually metered in case of non-payment? And it is illegal to cut off water.
Talk of Internet though, and it is entirely a different matter. Although considered a service more wide ranging than utilities, according to UK's Digital Economy Bill that became a law a couple of weeks ago, someone could be disconnected from the Internet almost at a drop of a hat.
Moreover, this new law which was hastily passed by the UK parliament on April 8, has given governmental powers to Ofcom -- the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries -- to block websites that are likely to be used for infringing copyright. The Bill implements aspects of Government policy on digital media set out in the 'Digital Britain' White Paper published in June 2009.
The Bill that according to the Government sets out to secure UK's position as one of the world's leading digital knowledge, which accounts for nearly £1 in every £10 that the whole economy produces each year, has the following objectives:
o To strengthen and modernize the country's communications infrastructure;
o To make the UK one of the world's main creative capitals by tackling online infringement of copyright.
o To ensure the provision of engaging public service content by:
o And most notably to ensure that everyone can operate with confidence and safety.
Undoubtedly this bill is perhaps the most serious attempt yet by any European country (or any country for that matter) to tackle online piracy.
Consider this: over the last twelve months or so at least three governments -- New Zealand, France, and Spain -- tried to tame online piracy but failed to come up with a workable solution. The constant tussle between copyrighted content owners and civil liberty campaigners, who consider or seem to consider that almost any Internet clampdown a violation of the right to information, has always come as a serious hurdle to such efforts.
The US too in fact has been trying for much longer without any significant success.
Yet the harshness with which the new UK Bill has come down on Internet freedom is disturbing.
According to Open Rights Group -- a digital rights campaigner in Britain -- the Bill contains measures to allow disconnection of individuals from the Internet, for undefined periods of time and has web blocking laws, all with no real scrutiny and limited debate.
"Regardless of what you do or don't do, you could be punished for the actions of others because of laws put in place by the Digital Economy Bill: if you have unsecured WiFi in your home, you could be punished; if you use the Internet at your local coffee shop or library, you could lose access to that connection," the group argues.
Indeed there are quite a number of anomalies. For instance, although the Bill says proof is required before disconnection, it does not mandate that the evidence must relate to the holder of the Internet connection. Thus a subscriber could be punished for the actions of a friend or even a neighbor who has used that Internet connection.
Similarly, copyright holders have the power to demand that sites they believe to contravene copyright law be blocked by ISPs, without providing adequate evidence.
ORG adds that even if justice is not out of reach: a subscriber could appeal, but would not have to pay for the privilege that wouldn't be eligible for any legal aid. Reasons for appeal are limited too, and unlike in a trial, the onus would not be on
rights holders to prove guilt: the subscriber would be responsible for proving innocence.
Notably individual subscribers are the not the only ones to be severely affected by this clause in the bill. Libraries, schools, businesses and community centers all face having to go to tribunals to defend themselves against disconnection, says ORG. "Although taking measures to block P2P would now be a defense, they would still have to pay for their own legal representation in order to avoid disconnection. This seems bureaucratic and cumbersome to say the least."
Strangely while critics like Peter Clegg, an opposition leader, says the bill is far too heavily weighted in favor of the big corporations and those who are worried about too much information becoming available. Some of the "big corporations" are peeved as well. Google, Yahoo and Ebay, for instance, have hit out at the Bill, with specific criticism for the controversial Clause 8 which gives governmental powers to block websites that are 'likely to be used' for infringing copyright.
Similarly, ISPs like Talk Talk and O2 feel that the Bill contains proposals that can -- like in China -- potentially block legitimate search engines and websites.
Experts say the other serious side effects of the Bill would be that it would encourage people to encrypt and avoid blocks and expose themselves to much more illegal material, such as viruses and child abuse images.
Nevertheless the sector that has claimed absolute victory in all this is the digital copyright owner community. UK Music, British Recorded Music Industry and Federation Against Software Theft, for instance, say that they are delighted because the Bill's measures to reduce illegal downloading will not only spur investments in intellectual property, but would also help spur innovation of many legal business models.
The general belief among many in this community is that creative industries in UK today represents what manufacturing used to mean to the economy in previous decades. And issues of software piracy, counterfeiting, illegal file-sharing, lack of compliance in business together with a lack of appreciation for copyright among the public are all current and serious threats to the industry.
Intellectual property contributes a total of £53 billion to UK's economy, which equates to around eight per cent overall, while the creative industries that include software, film, music, games, eBooks and other sectors are responsible for employing 1.9 million people.
They admit that the Bill may still not be able to eliminate all piracy, yet it would go a long way toward reducing illegal freeloading and will help to build a more sustainable ecosystem for content on the Internet.
It seems that the Internet freeloaders have been beaten for once after all- perhaps!
[See http://www.digitalcommunitiesblogs.com/international_beat/2009/07/internet-freeloaders-continue.php ]
Indrajit Basu is the International Correspondent for Digital Communities
Photo by Lee Jordan. CC Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic