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Dublin: 3 °C Saturday 19 April, 2014

Column: Will Ireland block the internet to save CDs?

Paul Quigley, co-founder of a site which tracks the sharing of news stories through social media, warns that changes in Irish legislation could shut down any site that ‘interacts’ with the internet.

Paul Quigley

THE “INNOVATION ISLAND” plans to change its law to allow copyright litigators block access to sites they don’t like.

In December, the Irish Times reported that the Irish government was planning to stop “illegal downloading” through a new government order. With half the internet blacked out in protest against SOPA yesterday, it’s worth knowing that the self professed “Innovation Island” is about to publish its own law allowing music labels and other copyright holders to ban internet service providers from allowing their customers access to sites that (the copyright holders think) infringe their copyright. We’re about to get our own, local, Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA).

“Minister of State for Enterprise Seán Sherlock is to publish an order early in the new year that is expected to allow music publishers, film producers and other parties to go to court to prevent internet service providers from allowing their customers access to pirate websites.”

What does that mean?

First up, pirate websites doesn’t just mean Pirate Bay. Depending on how the Order is drafted, it will likely mean any site that, in the opinion of any company or copyright holder, has infringed its copyright. So it could potentially include Google Image Search, Facebook (image & text copying), LinkedIn (image and text copying) Youtube, Google News, Flipboard, and any site that aggregates, quotes, mixes up, or creates directories of content. Goodbye Tumblr, Delicio.us, and good luck to any startup that wants to point to, arrange, quote from, or otherwise interact with the content of the internet.

You can be closed down. Just like that. Poof.

Sound dramatic? It is. That’s why the anti-SOPA movement, including Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, Google and others, are so worked up about its US equivalent.

The copyright lobby is looking for this new legal weapon, and there’s no reason to expect that it will be used proportionately. Music labels already have a history of aggressive litigation in wringing everything they can from existing laws. Remember for a moment the last glorious 15 years of RIAA Granny-suing, the 12-year-olds in court, the million dollar judgments against people who didn’t know their kids were downloading. There’s no-one more aggressive than someone backed into a corner, and the essential “value ad” (or reason for existence) of music labels – marketing and distribution of “records” – has been overtaken by technology. Musicians can record songs, release them online, achieve fame, and make money without any need to impress a record company. Today EMI & co. cling to copyright laws, and need new weapons in their legal arsenal to keep their revenues up.

The proposed changes in Irish laws would give these desperadoes, and other litigants, a nuclear threat to force the internet to rearrange itself in a way that suits them.

Imagine, for a moment, what the World Wide Web would look like if it was shaped to the will of the music companies and movie studios and old media giants. There’d probably be about 12 (very expensive) websites on the whole thing, streaming live Disney movies, X-Factor songs, and €16.99 uncopyable, single listen digital albums.

Of course, the big boys (like Youtube) will probably work out deals with the labels and copyright litigants. Those deals most likely will not suit you and I. Startups that can’t afford lawyers and are perceived as threats could be easily sued out of existence (quite literally, they would go dark), and we could all move back to the mid ’90s.

Yesterday, a substantial portion of the internet blacked itself out in protest at SOPA, and its passage looks increasingly doubtful. But Ireland is careening in the other direction.

Free internet access is not a “loophole”

Why has there been so little outcry about this potentially drastic change to the law in Ireland? Broadsheet.ie went dark as part of the international anti-SOPA protests, but the papers and RTE are quiet.

Part of this might be down to the one-sided reporting on the matter. In the Irish Times piece referred to above, the fact that music companies can’t force ISPs to block access to particular sites is referred to by the reporter as “a loophole in Irish law”. By that logic, the fact that the Irish Times can’t get an injunction to stop you sharing a newspaper is a “loophole”. So is your right to share your choc ice. Free internet access is not a “loophole”.

More recently, the Irish Music Rights Association (IMRA, our local RIAA) launched litigation to force the government to pass other laws it wants – basically a “3 Strikes” rule to take away the internet from copyright infringers. Needless to say, the only quotes in the piece were from IMRA chief Willie Kavanagh. He said the “3 Strikes” rule was “working incredibly well.” What does that mean? A lot of people are being booted off the internet and buying CDs?

As law lecturer TJ McIntyre said on his blog, it’s “disappointing to see a story uncritically repeat the claims of one side to litigation without offering either a response from the other side or an independent perspective.”

In its earlier piece, the Times adds that “Official figures show that CD sales in the Republic fell from €146 million in 2006 to €56 million last year.”

CD sales. That’s what it’s all about people! If EMI and IMRA have their way, our booming CD-based economy will rebound by Q3 2012.

Paul Quigley is co-founder of Newswhip.com. This opinion piece first appeared on Newswhip’s blog yesterday.

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