Legislation to protect copyright and other intellectual property has been in the headlines recently, with the news that the ACTA legislation has been voted down by the European Parliament. Closer to home, Ofcom published a draft code for implementing the controversial Digital Economy Act (DEA).
In these cases and others, there has been a very worrying trend in which governments, and the UK government especially, seems prepared to trample over the rights of citizens at the behest of powerful vested interests.
The air of conspiracy wasn't helped by the fact that ACTA was negotiated behind closed doors, with no public oversight of the discussions taking place or the terms of the treaty that were being thrashed out.
Thankfully, it seems that ACTA is unlikely to come into force in the EU, but attention has now shifted to a very similar treaty, the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) currently being negotiated between the EU and Canada and which seems to carry many of the same provisions, according to reports.
Meanwhile in the UK, the DEA is moving forward with measures that could result in those accused of illegally downloading or sharing copyright content ultimately having their internet access cut off.
This is particularly worrying, especially as those accused of piracy will have limited rights of appeal, if interpretations of the Ofcom code are correct.
In fact, it is the owner of the internet connection that will find themselves served with a letter from their internet service provider (ISP), if it has been determined that that an illegal download or file-sharing activity can be traced to their IP address.
As has been demonstrated before, coming up with an IP address allegedly involved in illegal activity is not enough evidence to identify an individual responsible for that activity. What happens when such an IP address turns out to be associated with a Wi-Fi hotspot operated by a public library or coffee shop, for example?
Under the provisions of the DEA, anyone served with three letters by their ISP within a year may face legal action, which in future could result in their internet service being suspended or terminated.
Those receiving such a letter will be able to appeal against the accusation, of course, but will have to pay to do this. Worse, it seems that you will only be allowed to appeal on grounds specified by the DEA itself, and simply claiming that you didn't do it will not apparently be allowed - a complete reversal of the prinicpal of innocent until proven guilty.
I'm not siding with illegal downloaders or those who make money from pirating software or sharing copyright content. In fact, I strongly believe that those who create compelling content or develop software that serves a useful purpose fully deserve compensation for their efforts. Everyone deserves the right to earn themselves a living.
However, draconian and poorly thought-out legislation such as the DEA risks hitting too many innocent people, and could ultimately undermine public support for concepts such as copyright.
Already, many commentators are starting to liken the tactics of rights holder bodies to mafia extortion. Such organisations clearly have far too much influence over the decision makers in our own government, especially when it seems that the government relied solely on piracy figures provided by rights holders when drawing up the DEA.
This cannot be a good thing, especially as the UK doesn't actually manufacture much of anything anymore, and we increasingly rely on income from intangibles like intellectual property to keep the country solvent.
A balance needs to be struck between the rights of individuals and the desire of businesses to protect their assets. The government doesn't seem to be getting it right so far.
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