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Battle for the internet – how does UK copyright law stack up?

April 20th, 2012 by Lloyd Gofton

The Guardian’s seven-day special series on the Battle for the internet has been fascinating so far. It has covered a wide range of subjects from states stifling dissent to the new cyberwar front line, and focuses on the challenges facing the dream of an open internet.

We are currently on day five (Friday), but already the areas covered have included:

The New Cold War – Looking at issues in China, Russia, U.S. and the greatest threats to web freedom

The militarisation of cyberspace – Internet attacks on sovereign targets are no longer a fear for the future, but a daily threat. Will the next big war be fought online?

The new walled gardens – For many, the internet is now essentially Facebook. Others find much of their online experience is mediated by Apple or Amazon. Why are the walls going up around the web garden, and does it matter?

IP wars – Intellectual property, from copyrights to patents, have been an internet battlefield from the start. What do Sopa, Pipa and Acta really mean, and what is the next step?

‘Civilising’ the web (Friday) – In the UK, the ancient law of defamation is increasingly looking obsolete in the Twitter era. Meanwhile, in France, President Sarkozy believes the state can tame the web.

Still to come:

Day six: the open resistance – Meet the activists and entrepreneurs who are working to keep the internet open.

Day seven: the end of privacy – Hundreds of websites know vast amounts about their users’ behaviour, personal lives and connections with each other. Find out who knows what about you, and what they use the information for.

As you can see, there are too many topics to cover in one post, but one focus particularly caught my attention. British copyright law and its relevance to the realities of the internet is not a new debate, but it is an ongoing problem that needs to be addressed, as the blurring of the lines between what is legally acceptable, and what is published online, becomes a daily issue.

Dan Sabbagh’s piece on this subject, titled: British copyright law and internet realities highlighted the fact that British law is very clear on the illegality of copying media, but warned the true barriers to wider piracy are technological.

In the piece Sabbagh wrote: “Copying songs, films or images from the internet without permission is illegal under Britain’s copyright laws, which would be draconian were it not for the fact that they are so frequently flouted and with so little comeback. The principle, though, is straightforward: unless a copyright owner has given permission for content to be shared – whether via YouTube or the photo-sharing site Flickr – copying, even for private use, is illegal.

Which is why, more than 10 years after the iPod was launched, it is still in law not permissible to rip songs from a CD on to a computer or digital music player. The only legal exemption is the so-called “time shifting” exemption, which allows people to record television programmes for personal use.”

These facts, although often debated, are probably still a shock to many. This is especially true of those that have grown up as part of the digital media generation, where sharing files is natural and its legality simply doesn’t come into the equation.

Although the Hargreaves review into intellectual property, hopes to bring us closer to the IP laws in the U.S. and Germany, this is still far from a real response. The reality is the law is so regularly flouted simply because, as Sabbagh stated: “despite various efforts to force internet providers to send warning letters, or agree to other stiffer measures, it is not economic for media companies to pursue small copyright infringers. British copyright law and internet copyright reality remain some distance apart.”

So what is the future for UK copyright law and its enforcement in terms of the internet? If we look at the U.S. for a glimpse at the future, as we so often have to do, it can’t have escaped anyone’s notice that the battle is in full swing for the future of IP.

In the past 30 years the U.S. has lobbied for 15 pieces of legislation aimed at tightening their grip on content, as technology has moved ever faster to make the last piece of legislation irrelevant.

Earlier this year a high profile campaign against, Sopa, the Stop OnlinePiracy Act, was successful in applying the breaks. Furthermore, its sister act, Pipa, (Protect IP Act) was also de-railed, however additional acts are expected, and this sparked a more public war between traditional media owners (e.g. Rupert Murdoch) and digital media owners (e.g. Google).

Rupert Murdoch felt President Barack Obama had “thrown in his lot with Silicon Valley paymasters“, tweeting: “Piracy leader is Google who streams movies free, sells adverts around them,”

In Europe, Acta, (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) the U.S.-backed international copyright treaty, has also sparked protests. Countries including Bulgaria, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland and Slovakia have all refused to sign, arguing that Acta endangers freedom of speech and privacy, and the bill has also stalled. But it’s not clear for how long.

The argument is sure to rumble on, and the outcome will hopefully allow for a more open internet, but this is bound to be at the cost of certain data privacies. Whether the new ruling will be actually enforceable, or for that matter enforced, is a different question.

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