This morning, the High Court has ruled that BT must block Newzbin2, a website which it claims assists in copyright infringement, following a request by the Motion Picture Association. To many, this decision may seem obvious as it seeks to protect intellectual property and the suggestion is that the site in question was set up mainly for this purpose.
Large parts of the ISP community have made great efforts to stop distribution of child abuse images on the Internet, and thanks to its work there are very few cases of such images being hosted in the UK. However, as the arm of UK legislation doesn’t reach into other countries, such content is still available in other countries. To tackle this, many ISPs operate a URL filtering system which seeks to protect accidental access to such images. This usually works by filtering all traffic to IP addresses for URLs on the list via a proxy, which then carried out more specific checks on the URL, or at least that’s what any responsible ISP implementing this system would do. BT operates such a service under the name ‘cleanfeed’ and was one of the early pioneers in this area.
It is a criminal offence to view images of child abuse, however the intellectual property community is now keen to use this technology designed to stop civil wrongs (copyright infringement). You can debate the merits and flaws of whether this is right or wrong in policy, but there is a much more pressing issue.
The current systems in use are intended to prevent accidental access to content which would be illegal to view. It is certainly not illegal to ‘view’ the Newzbin2 site, and individuals looking to visit the site are doing so intentionally in my view are doing so intentionally, not by accident. The system of URL filtering works to protect accidental access, but as many people will know, getting around filters is trivial, such as by use of proxies, VPNs, using multiple host names to access the content, using other protocols, etc.
“In my judgment it follows that BT has actual knowledge of other persons using its service to infringe copyright: it knows that the users and operators of Newbin2 infringe copyright on a large scale, and in particular infringe the copyrights of the Studios in large numbers of their films and television programmes.
It knows that the users of Newzbin2 include BT subscribers, and it knows those users use its service to receive infringing copies of copyright works made available to them by Newzbin2.”
At present, the filtering systems are largely ignored by most users, because there is an almost universal view that distribution of child abuse images is unacceptable. There have been a few discussions relating to flaws in some implementations by researchers, but largely the system has been allowed to operate as intended.
There is a significant danger, that when this voluntary system loses the support of larger numbers of users, the techniques used to circumvent it will become more widely known, and the effectiveness of the system will be much reduced, as individuals work around restrictions to access content which courts may order they shouldn’t have access to.
By taking action to protect its users accidentally committing one of the most serious of crimes, BT has now been required to enforce a court order preventing access to a website for what is essentially an entirely private matter. I can understand MPA’s motives, and if we assume that intellectual property should be protected, why they have sought this action, but I am very worried about the negative externalities of what may happen, as this could be more detrimental to society as a whole, as now we will see every civil litigant seeking to use this as a precedent.