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Dublin: 9 °C Saturday 29 November, 2014

Aaron McKenna: Thanks to the government, internet censorship is alive and well

Ireland has bent over backwards to accommodate the wishes of copyright holders by blocking file-sharing websites – but there isn’t as much effort put into the voluntary blocking of child porn, such as exists in the UK or Norway, writes Aaron McKenna.

Aaron McKenna

THE IRISH SOPA law that the government rammed through by way of Ministerial flick of a pen has been quickly put to use in ordering Irish ISPs like UPC to block The Pirate Bay, a Swedish website that is commonly used to access BitTorrent downloads of copyrighted content.

The High Court has ordered that Imagine, Digiweb, Vodafone, Three, O2 and UPC will block access to the controversial but tenacious website by mid-July. Justice Brian McGovern issued an order which had been drafted by music publishers EMI, Sony, Universal Music and Warner Music in collaboration with the six ISPs.

Interestingly, the blocking order is all encompassing to The Pirate Bay as it exists or as it may exist at any point in the future. It is, perhaps, worth pausing a moment to consider a tweet sent by the minister who drove the Irish SOPA law through, Seán Sherlock:

“There is no intention by the government to introduce legislation to block access to the Internet or sites. I have state[d] that unambiguously.” Junior Minister Seán Sherlock, 24 January 2012.

Internet censorship without end

The law is quite ambiguous about what can be blocked, leaving it to the discretion of judges to figure out where the line may be. For example, in theory an Irish judge could block Facebook – if a case was so brought – if it were established that one can access copyright material through the service.

Now, copyright holders in the entertainment industry have good relations with Facebook and are unlikely to bring such a case. But the fact that the law can be used in this way sets open an avenue for internet censorship without end; firstly by way of the law itself, and secondly by the market set for Ireland being a country in which the government will ram through censorship laws in the face of massive opposition, such as the 80,000 strong Stop Irish SOPA petition.

You don’t make laws and set precedents to protect yourself from a benign government, as was influentially put forth by a group of former Attorney Generals in the Oireachtas Inquiries referendum.

Almost any form of censorship is wrong

By and large, internet censorship is entirely wrong. Almost any form of censorship is wrong. It is not wrong because I don’t believe in paying for things that others have produced at cost and effort to themselves – it’s wrong because it is such a slippery slope to head down, and in the case of protecting copyright materials the end is bought at a high price for minimal return.

Blocking The Pirate Bay will not work. Anyone with a bit of idle curiosity and access to Google will figure out how to bypass the ban.

Meanwhile we could see a scorched earth policy being pursued through the courts to block this and that in order to cut off the information on how to download copyrighted material without paying for it. The copyright holders who sued dead grandmothers in the past could, for example, decide that they want to block web forums where information on circumventing bans is available.

Internet censorship is such a slippery slope for such small gain in protection from lost revenues.

Business models that are ‘better than piracy’

The entertainment industry is starting, slowly, to figure out that instead of pursuing Quixotic legal adventures they would be better off changing their business models. Digital consumption of copyright material isn’t going to end, so you need to make it easier to access and monetise that stream of users.

Daniel Ek is the founder of Spotify, one of several music streaming services that makes money through advertising or monthly subscription. He has said that he wanted to create that was “better than piracy”. By making it easy to access music – removing friction, as they say in the states (hands up in the comments if you got that) – and adding benefits like social sharing, why would you bother going to all that effort to pirate some music? Ditto for Netflix where movies and TV shows are concerned; or the official YouTube accounts of a host of copyright holders and a plethora of other up and coming companies, many of which have yet to reach Ireland.

So tacit is the acknowledgement that this is a better way to do things, the music industry struck a deal with Apple on its iTunes Match service, which allows you to import non-iTunes music for a small fee on every song – the revenue from which is shared with copyright holders. Effectively, much of that music will have been pirated; and now that Apple is offering a better service and way to use that music people are paying up for it.

Ireland should be blocking child porn

Unfortunately, the Irish government just rolled over when they were told to and the copyright holders spot a good deal in Ireland. There’s even talk of them chasing the Irish taxpayer to pay for copyright infringements. Give an inch, they’ll take a mile.

Meanwhile, in Europe the similar ACTA law was shot down comprehensively by a European parliament that is much less gullible than official Ireland: our government signed up to ACTA before it was binned by MEPs.

The one and only time I could accept any form of internet censorship is to do with child pornography. Indeed, I consider it quite odd that Ireland has bent over backwards to help copyright holders block websites; but there isn’t so much as voluntary blocking of child porn such as exists in the UK or up in Norway.

The Norwegians have a good model, explicitly stating that the sites they blacklist will be related to child exploitation and nothing else. No drugs, no piracy, no nothing. Yes, blocking child porn will be avoidable by those on the lookout for the stuff. But the costs are minimal, and if you stop just one person getting into that sordid world it’s worth it.

Refuse to accept censorship of the internet

That aside, blocking of any other material on the internet or elsewhere is quite objectionable. It is also worrying at how easily Irish governments are prepared to roll over on the issue, and the precedent that sets for censorship of whatever else becomes a fancy of corporate or moral panic in the country.

I would suggest that the way to roll back censorship laws, and ensure that they do not promulgate bit by bit in the future, is to put it on the mind of your local politicians the next time they come looking for a vote. It may not be issue number one or even two or three or five on the national agenda. But you should make it known that you won’t support people who blindly support censorship of the internet.

Aaron McKenna is a businessman and a columnist for TheJournal.ie. He is also involved in activism in his local area. You can find out more about him at aaronmckenna.com or follow him on Twitter @aaronmckenna. To read more columns by Aaron click here.

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