UK Culture Secretary calls for boldness in dealing with online piracy

UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt wants action to protect and encourage investment in intellectual property. In a Speech  given to the Royal Television Society on September 14, 2011 he signaled that the UK was exploring all options available to do so. This includes making it more difficult for online sites that contribute to piracy to stay online and making search engines take reasonable steps to make it harder to access sites that a court has deemed contain unlawful content or promote unlawful distribution of content.

The speech follows policy initiatives on the copyright front announced by the UK Government in August. According to a report from Ofcom,  Site blocking” to reduce online copyright infringement,  initiatives being explored include blocking injunctions, notice and takedown, delisting from search engines, and domain name seizures.

Culture Secretary Hunt provided more insight to what the UK is exploring. For the record, here is what he had to say on this topic.

Protecting consumers and companies from offensive and unlawful content.

The final area the new Comms Act needs to address is the protection of consumers and companies from offensive content and from the damage done by unlawful or unlawfully distributed content.

Here we need to make a clear distinction between offensive and unlawful content.

  1. Offensive contentWhat we mean by offensive content is generally more subjective, and indeed can change over time. So when it comes to accessing material that can offend taste and decency standards in their own home, we should put consumers firmly in the driving seat. We won’t water down existing protections on traditional media – the watershed is here to stay – and I welcome the progress made both by the UK Council for Child Internet Safety and also by ISPs who have just completed  work on a draft code of practice on parental controls.But I think we may need to go further.I will therefore consider including in the new Comms Act an obligation on ISPs to ensure all their customers make an active choice about parental controls, either at the point of purchase or the point of account activation.
  2. Unlawfully distributed contentHowever when it comes to material that is being unlawfully distributed online, we need a different approach.The first argument we need to nail is the idea that tackling this problem is an assault on the “freedom” of the internet.John Stuart Mill defined liberty as the freedom to do anything provided it does not impinge on the freedom of others. Unlawfully distributing copyrighted material is theft – and a direct assault on the freedoms and rights of creators of content to be rewarded fairly for their efforts.Fundamental to our concept of both freedom and the law is that it should apply to everyone without fear or favour. This means it must apply equally in the virtual world as in the physical world.

    We do not allow certain products to be sold in the shops on the high street, nor do we allow shops to be set up purely to sell counterfeited products. Likewise we should be entitled to make it more difficult to access sites that are dedicated to the infringement of copyright. Sites that are misleading customers and denying creators fair reward for their work.

    Let me be clear: the government has no business protecting old models or helping industries that have failed to move with the times. So we strongly welcomed the proposals by Professor Hargreaves to help the UK lead the way with new business models by setting up a Digital Copyright Exchange.

    But those new models will never be able to prosper if they have to compete with free alternatives based on the illegal distribution of copyrighted material. We see this in South Korea, where according to the Economist a proliferation of new business models for content distribution have emerged following the introduction of anti-piracy laws. The result?  Locally produced music content has now risen to 76% of domestic CD sales.

    The devil of course is in the detail. But we need to explore all options to make life more difficult for sites that ignore the law. I believe these could include:

    • A cross-industry body, perhaps modeled on the Internet Watch Foundation, to be charged with identifying infringing websites against which action could be taken;
    • A streamlined legal process to make it possible for the courts to act quickly;
    • A responsibility on search engines and ISPs to take reasonable steps to make it harder to access sites that a court has deemed contain unlawful content or promote unlawful distribution of content;
    • A responsibility on advertisers to take reasonable steps to remove their advertisements from these sites;
    • And finally a responsibility on credit card companies and banks to remove their services from these sites.

Experience in America shows that these goals can be achieved by voluntary agreements – but if not we will look at legislative solutions and include these in our forthcoming Communications Green Paper.

The Culture secretary was clearly aware of the challenges faced by the UK in dealing with online piracy and the other topics he spoke about which included challenges related to broadcasting, communications and media. He emphasised the need for “boldness” in dealing with key challenges.

He concluded his remarks saying the following:

So in summary, there are three fundamental areas where we need radical change in the new Communications Act.

Action to promote growth, largely around stimulating investment in a strong digital infrastructure.

Action to protect plurality and freedom of expression within a rapidly changing digital environment.

And finally, action to protect and encourage investment in intellectual property, a great source of opportunity for the UK. Sitting on the sidelines can never be an option if we are seeking global competitive advantage.

It needs imagination, determination and vision.

Boldness be my friend.

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