Features

net.wars: Government blockheads

by Wendy M Grossman | posted on 01 April 2011


It is very, very difficult to understand the reasoning behind the not-so-secret plan to institute Web blocking. In a http://www.openrightsgroup.org/blog/2011/minister-confirms-voluntary-site-blocking-discussionsletter to the Open Rights Group, Ed Vaizey, the minister for culture, communications, and creative industries, confirmed that such a proposal emerged from a workshop to discuss "developing new ways for people to access content online". (Orwell would be so proud.)

Wendy M Grossman

We fire up Yes, Minister once again to remind everyone the four characteristics of proposals ministers like: quick, simple, popular, cheap. Providing the underpinnings of Web site blocking is not likely to be very quick, and it's debatable whether it will be cheap. But it certainly sounds simple, and although it's almost certainly not going to be popular among the 7 million people the government claims engage in illegal file-sharing – a number PC Pro has done a nice job of dissecting - it's likely to be popular with the people Vaizey seems to care most about, rights holders.

The four opposing kiss-of-death words are: lengthy, complicated, expensive, and either courageous or controversial, depending how soon the election is. How to convince Vaizey that it's these four words that apply and not the other four?

Well, for one thing, it's not going to be simple, it's going to be complicated. Web site blocking is essentially a security measure. You have decided that you don't want people to have access to a particular source of data, and so you block their access. Security is, as we know, not easy to implement and not easy to maintain. Security, as Bruce Schneier keeps saying, is a process, not a product. It takes a whole organization to implement the much more narrowly defined IWF system. What kind of infrastructure will be required to support the maintenance and implementation of a block list to cover copyright infringement? Self-regulatory, you say? Where will the block list, currently thought to be about 100 sites come from? Who will maintain it? Who will oversee it to ensure that it doesn't include "innocent" sites? ISPs have other things to do, and other than limiting or charging for the bandwidth consumption of their heaviest users (who are not all file sharers by any stretch) they don't have a dog in this race. Who bears the legal liability for mistakes?

The list is most likely to originate with rights holders, who, because they have shown over most of the last 20 years that they care relatively little if they scoop innocent users and sites into the net alongside infringing ones, no one trusts to be accurate. Don't the courts have better things to do than adjudicate what percentage of a given site's traffic is copyright-infringing and whether it should be on a block list? Is this what we should be spending money on in a time of austerity? Mightn't it be…expensive?

Making the whole thing even more complicated is the obvious (to anyone who knows the Internet) fact that such a block list will - according to Torrentfreak already has - start a new arms race.

And yet another wrinkle: among blocking targets are cyberlockers. And yet this is a service that, like search, is going mainstream: Amazon.com has just launched such a service, which it calls Cloud Drive and for which it retains the right to police rather thoroughly. Encrypted files, here we come.

At least one ISP has already called the whole idea expensive, ineffective, and rife with unintended consequences.

There are other obvious arguments, of course. It opens the way to censorship. It penalizes innocent uses of technology as well as infringing ones; torrent search sites typically have a mass of varied material and there are legitimate reasons to use torrenting technology to distribute large files. It will tend to add to calls to spy on Internet users in more intrusive ways (as Web blocking fails to stop the next generation of file-sharing technologies). It will tend to favor large (often American) services and companies over smaller ones. Google, as IsoHunt told the US Court of Appeals two weeks ago, is the largest torrent search engine. (And, of course, Google has other copyright troubles of its own; last week the court rejected the Google Books settlement.)

But the sad fact is that although these arguments are important they're not a good fit if the main push behind Web blocking is an entrenched belief that only way to secure economic growth is to extend and tighten copyright while restricting access to technologies and sites that might be used for infringement. Instead, we need to show that this entrenched belief is wrong.

We do not block the roads leading to car boot sales just because sometimes people sell things at them whose provenance is cloudy (at best). We do not place levies on the purchase of musical instruments because someone might play copyrighted music on them. We should not remake the Internet – a medium to benefit all of society – to serve the interests of one industrial group. It would make more sense to put the same energy and financial resources into supporting the games industry which, as Tom Watson (Lab – Bromwich) has pointed out has great potential to lift the British economy.


Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, follow on Twitter or send email to netwars(at) skeptic.demon.co.uk (but please turn off HTML).