A busy week for UK web blocking discussions

The rule of law – and not the government – should ultimately debate and decide on the legality of web blocking. Let’s hope the government takes heed of this message.

Will we see an increase in internet restrictions?
Dominique Lazanski
On 21 September 2011 14:20

This week the government is hosting several meetings to discuss web blocking.

On Monday, Minister Ed Vaizey, responsible for the digital economy, met with rights holders and major Internet companies as well as other industry groups to discuss a proposal put forth to them before the summer recess.

Yesterday, I co-chaired a meeting with Minister Vaizey at which attendees included the Open Rights Group, COADEC, Pirate Party and LINX in addition to various small businesses and independent consultants.

Finally, today, Nominet is hosting a round table meeting with their issue group to discuss a possible agreement on this issue.

It’s a busy week for web blocking discussions.

Web blocking is the idea that a website, domain name, or specific content is blocked by an ISP or web site hosting company in order to prevent that content from being accessed. This is a very basic definition of a technically complicated issue that happens in countries like China, Saudia Arabia and even the UK. At issue, however, is the type of content being blocked.

It is one thing if child pornography is being blocked in order to pursue the person or group who made it available and who is/are committing a crime. But it is entirely another to suggest that web blocking is a good idea for legal content which may be posted illegally or even found to be offensive – but not illegal – by other parties.

Therein lies the very paradox of the web blocking debate.

Our meeting yesterday was very productive and lively to say the least. Minister Vaizey clearly understood the technical challenges and unintended consequences of the issue at hand (not to mention the very fact that intended consequences are not always achieved).

There were clear commonalities among all of the groups represented in the room and ones that are of the utmost importance in this debate.

First, all of us in that room emphasized that the rule of law, due process, and the authority of the courts should not be superseded by an alternative blocking process.

One earlier proposal seen by all of us was that of the Football Association which proposed temporary, government mandated blocks on football games that might otherwise be streamed illegally.

This isn’t ideal in a society where the rule of law is a lynchpin of freedom and democracy.

We also all agreed that evidence based reports or business cases underpinning the request for web blocking would help a great deal. More rigourous research on why blocking is needed is, well, much needed.

More detailed and fuller descriptions of the meeting as it took places can be found on the Open Rights Group blog, Trefor Davies blog, and James Firth’s Slightly Right of Centre blog. All of the posts relate the more complex nature of the discussion and they are all worth in depth reading.

So in light of all of these meetings, where does that leave the web blocking in the UK?

Web blocking is being discussed in the Home Office under the Prevent strategy, in DCMS for copyright issues, and in the Foreign Office as well as the Cabinet Office for issues of safety and control. There are so many proposals that even the ministers can’t keep track of them let alone the common citizen.

But the importance in all of this is that the landmark Newzbin2 case – like it or hate it – did result in upholding the court process for the ordering of web blocking. The judge ordered a block on the current Newzbin2 site through BT’s Cleanfeed, but discussed the reality that blocking might not actually work.

This is how a free society works: the rule of law – and not the government – ultimately debates and decides on the legality of web blocking.

Let’s hope the government takes heed of this message.

Dominique Lazanski spent over 10 years in the Internet industry in Silicon Valley and works for the Tax Payers' Alliance in the United Kingdom. She tweets at @dml

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