Site-blocking battle going global

Copyright From virtually a standing start in the U.S. last year the debate over blocking access to so-called rogue web sites that host copyright infringing content has escalated rapidly into a worldwide battle.

Last week, a group of leading technology investors and venture capitalists sent a letter to members of the U.S. Congress warning that the Protect IP Act (PIPA), which was approved by the Senate Judiciary Committee in May, could stifle innovation and harm U.S. competitiveness around the world.

“The bill is ripe for abuse, as it allows rights-holders to require third-parties to block access to and take away revenues sources for online services, with limited oversight and due process,” the group said. “While we understand PIPA was originally intended to deal with “rogue” foreign sites, we think PIPA will ultimately put American innovators and investors at a clear disadvantage in the global economy.”

The letter drew a sharp rebuttal from the MPAA. “We can’t keep being asked to choose between technology and creativity, and we can’t stand by as criminals profit from the hard work of the millions of American men and women of the creative and entertainment industry,” Michael O’Leary, the MPAA’s executive VP for government affairs, said in a statement. “This is a smart, narrowly-crafted bill whose purpose is stopping theft, not slowing innovation. All we’re asking is that the innovators play by the rules.”

Across the pond in the U.K., meanwhile, Britain’s communications minister Ed Vaizey hosted a meeting last week between ISPs and copyright owner groups to discuss “cooperative” approaches to combating online piracy. The meeting drew criticism from consumer groups whose requests to participate in the discussions were denied.

According to leaks ahead of the meeting, copyright owners are pressing for a voluntary plan to empower an “expert panel” to recommend web sites that should be blocked. Those recommendations would then be forwarded to a court to determine whether an injunction should be issued banning the site from hosting infringing material. Meanwhile, ISPs that sign up for the code would block access those sites.

“Essentially the trade associations are proposing that the Applications Court of the High Court issues permanent injunctions on the basis that a ‘Council’ and ‘expert body’ have come to the view that the evidence submitted by copyright owners is valid and the blocking access to the website is appropriate,” consumer-rights group Consumer Focus said in a letter to Vaizey following the meeting. “These proposals are a significant regulatory intervention and require at the very least significant changes to the Civil Procedure Rules. As such they should be publicly consulted on and evidence based.”

This week, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development takes up the issue at a gathering in Paris. Discussion documents prepared for the meeting suggest the OECD is likely to come down against site-blocking as a means of combating online piracy, setting up a possible clash with member governments.

“We’re trying to get the message across that if you hamper the flow of information, you are shooting yourself in the foot in terms of the economic benefits of the Internet,” said Sam Paltridge, an official in the O.E.C.D.’s directorate for science, technology and industry, told the New York Times.  “If someone comes along and threatens that openness, that’s a real problem for economic growth.”

Forget three strikes. The game now is all about blocking and tackling.

Further reading:

Hollywood studios ask High Court to block film website

Will OECD serve Hollywood against our freedoms?

The new web will need a new network