The Voluntary Website Blocking Proposal is a document shared by the Rightsholder Group, an association of copyright organisation, with Ed Vaizey, the Minister for Culture, Communications and Creative Industries, on 15 June 2011. The Proposal is to use the Digital Economy Act as a stepping stone to institute voluntary website blocking by ISPs. This blocking would blacklist websites which contain allegedly copyrighted content, preventing UK citizens from accessing them.
Such a blacklist would involve rightsholders making an application to an unspecified "Council" and "expert body", who maintain a Voluntary Code of what is and is not appropriate. If these bodies agree that the content the rightsholders are complaining about violates copyright law, they would advise the Interim Applications Court (a branch of the High Court) to force ISPs participating in the scheme to block the offending website, whose owners would be forced to apply to either the expert body and/or court to have the block set aside.
What are the problems?
Is website blocking necessary?
Rightsholders have yet to make a good argument that website blocking is necessary. While the report states that the approach taken by the rightsholders "Begins with a commitment to ensuring that there are legitimate offers in the marketplace, adapted to the changing opportunities provided by digital technology", they've yet to show this. There have been no Netflix-style innovations in the UK, or similar, legitimate forms of digital data exchange; instead, rightsholders have relied on the government to institute more and more stringent restrictions on the internet in an effort to make up for a lack of effort on their part.
These restrictions have not been and are not based on reliable, objective evidence. At no point in this report, or in any other report, do the rightsholders provide evidence to support the idea of website blocking, something the Hargreaves Review identified as a major problem with copyright related decision-making. Blocking access to unlicensed websites would certainly appear to stem the flow of illicit copyrighted content online, but so would providing a legitimate source of this content, a plan which has far fewer adverse side-effects.
Lack of transparency
The presentation of this proposal and the discussion between Ed Vaizey and the Rightsholders Group has been typified by subterfuge, obfuscation and the prevention of bodies with legitimate concerns from getting involved in the process. In the initial meeting, only Consumer Focus, Ed Vaizey and a whole host of rightsholders were invited; bodies such as the Open Rights Group asked to be allowed to participate, but were denied. The result of this is that the views of consumers and the people actually impacted on by any website blocking were not adequately represented. The paper has not officially been released to the public or circulated outside of these groups.
The paper itself also lacks transparency and specifics; there is no indication of precisely who would select this "Council" or "expert body", what concerns the Voluntary Code would take into account, what constitutes a copyright infringement, precisely what they would ban or the way the government would oversee the plans. Essentially, it amounts to privatised, regulation-free censorship of the internet, based on what a group of individuals theoretically appointed by the copyright owners would decide firstly what constitutes a violation of copyright law, and secondly what to do about it, with little or no input from the people the blocks would impact on.
Lack of review
While the proposal makes cursory reference to the "rule of law" and the courts, it amounts to a dangerous revocation of the rule of law. It suggests an "expedited court procedure", with a "balance" to be struck between evidence and the speed of action. This could mean a very low burden of proof to censor and cut off what the United Nations Special Rappoteur on freedom of expression has concluded is a basic human right. Assessing whether or not evidence is sufficient will not, at the first stage, be done by a court or anyone with a duty to remain neutral - it will be done by an "expert body", presumably funded and run by the rightsholders with a resulting lack of impartiality.
Decisions will eventually go to the courts, specifically the Interim Applications Court. This Court normally holds sittings within two days of a request being made (or less), severely limiting the ability of the website owner to adequately respond; two days is not enough time to hire a proper lawyer and bring them up to speed. Even if it was, lawyers are highly expensive, and since owning a website is not something with high economic requirements, many defendants will struggle to financially justify getting expert help.
Cost and feasibility
The technical costs and feasibility of this blocking proposal have not been adequately assessed. A report by Consumer Focus, looking at the impact of website blocking, concluded that, on the technical front, blocking would degrade the speed and quality of internet connections while increasing the cost to subscribers - even those who haven't downloaded anything illegally. This is despite the fact that website blocking inevitably excludes problematic sites while including innocent ones, resulting in internet users losing access to legitimate resources. The blocking proposal has not addressed these points, leading to the very real possibility that consumers will be charged more for worse services in the name of censoring activities they've never engaged in.
What are we doing?
Since the report was leaked, the Open Rights Group has been working hard to force the government to reconsider. With over 7,000 protest emails sent by campaigners around the country, Ed Vaizey agreed to a meeting with ORG, during which we presented a formal briefing highlighting the flaws with this plan. Still, there's a lot of work to be done if we want to kill this proposal, and for that we need your help. You can Email your MP, explaining the issues you have with the proposal, or even visit them; we also encourage volunteers and activists to contact their ISP directly and tell them how unhappy they are with the idea. Please remember to be polite and reasonable when chatting to them - and if you can, it's always good to tell your friends and family about what's going on so they can get involved too.