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Dublin: 8 °C Wednesday 22 October, 2014

Everything you need to know about Ireland’s SOPA

Solicitor and chairman of Digital Rights Ireland TJ McIntyre explains exactly what we know about proposed legislation to block website accused of infringing copyright – and what we don’t know.

TJ McIntyre

What’s this all about?

Long story short: the Irish government plans, before the end of January, to bring in a law which would allow Irish courts to block access to websites accused of infringing copyright (and possibly do other things as well).

Isn’t that a short time for parliament to examine it?

The Irish parliament won’t have a chance to debate it before it’s passed. The law is to be brought in by a statutory instrument, something which requires only the stroke of a minister’s pen.

Who’s responsible?

The law is the responsibility of the Department for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation where the key person is junior minister Sean Sherlock.

What will the law say?

We don’t have a final text yet. But the key part is likely to be similar to a previous draft which said:

3. The Act of 2000 is hereby amended by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (5) of section 40:

(5A)(a) without prejudice to subsections (3) and (4), the owner of the copyright in the work concerned may apply to the High Court for an injunction against a person who provides facilities referred to in subsection (3) where those facilities are being used by one or more third parties to infringe the copyright in that work.
(b) In considering an application for an injunction under this subsection, the court shall have due regard to the rights of any third party likely to be affected and the court shall make such directions (including, where appropriate, a direction requiring a third party to be put on notice of the application) as the court may deem necessary or appropriate in all the circumstances.

Can we have that in English please?

Certainly. This will give the Irish courts an open-ended power to grant orders against ISPs and other intermediaries who provide facilities which might be used to infringe copyright. This could include hosting providers, social networks, forums, video hosting sites – potentially most online services.

What will these intermediaries be required to do?

We don’t know. At a minimum this will probably allow courts to require ISPs to block access to alleged infringing sites (such as The Pirate Bay). Over and above that it becomes impossible to say – the language is so vague it might, for example, allow a court to require an ISP to introduce a three strikes system or to block certain ports. However, once copyright plaintiffs get hold of this power you can expect it to be pushed to its absolute limit.

Will the sites to be blocked have a right to be heard?

Maybe. The draft language does say that affected third parties might be given notice of applications to block them. On the other hand, in 2009 an Irish High Court judge was happy to allow Eircom to block The Pirate Bay without any notification or chance to be heard which doesn’t bode well for the future.

What sort of standard will be used to decide if a site should be blocked?

Your guess is as good as mine – the draft is completely silent on this point.

Isn’t this rather vague?

Yes. By failing to provide any real detail, the proposed law leaves the future of the Irish internet essentially in the discretion of Irish judges.

Could this harm Irish industry?

Yes – including the latest push to establish Ireland as a centre for cloud computing. Here’s what tech journalist Adrian Weckler had to say:

With their billions of users, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter inherently find some copyright protected material leaked onto their web services. The new law will give music and movie firms the legal footing to get ISPs blocking. That may not go down too well with Google and Facebook, which are two of Dublin’s biggest employers. It probably won’t sit easily, either, with the IDA, which may have to alter its pitch to large US social media firms who may have been thinking of setting up in Ireland. (That includes Twitter.)

So where’s the Regulatory Impact Assessment? Surely we need more detail about the impact this law will have?

Tumbleweed.

Would this vagueness breach the European Convention on Human Rights?

Quite possibly.

If nothing else will it at least stop illegal downloads and protect Bono’s pocketbook?

No. Blocking is easily circumvented. But don’t take my word for it – here’s what UK regulator Ofcom had to say:

For all blocking methods circumvention by site operators and internet users is technically possible and would be relatively straightforward by determined users.

So why is the government pushing this law now?

In a 2010 decision the High Court held that European law required Ireland to introduce blocking into domestic law, and that Ireland was in breach by failing to provide for court ordered blocking.

Doesn’t that decision mean that blocking must be introduced?

Maybe. The law in this area is extremely complex, particularly since the European Court of Justice has given an important decision restricting the use of blocking in the meantime. That decision found that filtering would be impermissible if it undermined freedom of expression and blocked lawful communications – something that is inevitable if this proposal is adopted.

From a practical point of view, the European Commission – which monitors implementation of EU law – doesn’t seem to think Ireland is in breach and hasn’t taken any action against Ireland for failure to introduce blocking. Irish telecoms group ALTO have also put forward a different view arguing that this law is unnecessary.

However, even if we assume that EU law does require some form of blocking then it should not be introduced in a way which

  • short circuits the democratic process and without proper scrutiny by the Irish parliament; and
  • introduces untolerable uncertainty for Irish online businesses and fundamental rights.

What can I do about it?

If you live in Ireland and you want to stop this proposal then you should let Sean Sherlock (email) (twitter @seansherlocktd), the senior minister Richard Bruton (email) and your TDs what you think of it. Phone their offices if you can – one phone call will outweigh 20 emails.

StopSOPAIreland.com has more you can do.

If you live outside Ireland, you might still email Richard Bruton and Sean Sherlock to let them know the effect this will have on Ireland’s reputation as a place to set up technology businesses.

One more thing – is it really true that the music industry wants the Irish taxpayer to pay for supposedly lost sales?

Yes. I hope you brought your wallet.

TJ McIntyre is a solicitor, UCD law lecturer and chairman of civil rights group Digital Rights Ireland.

Editor’s note: Boards.ie user SolarNexus has a letter template for sending to Minister of State Seán Sherlock that is worth a look. See here.

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