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By: MarkJ - 9 February, 2012 (12:44 PM)
UK DCMS internet copyrightpirate flagThe UK Secretary of State for the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS), Mark Prisk MP (Conservative), appears to have confirmed that the government's controversial new website blocking code (web censorship) proposals for broadband internet providers are "imminent" and will apparently be "welcomed".

As we reported on Monday (here), the government hopes to release its new Communications Bill green paper before the end of this week (unless it slips to next week). It's no secret that the much debated Voluntary Code of Practice, which will work alongside Rights Holders and ISPs to block internet sites that are deemed to "facilitate" internet copyright infringement (piracy), is set to feature in the bill.

Mark Prisk told V3:

"I can say that we are closely considering whether to block access to websites that infringe copyright. We will have something to say about that shortly, but, as I would like to continue to have a positive working relationship with my ministerial colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, I shall not pre-empt what they are about to say."

The idea of a voluntary code, which has been around since early 2011 (here), gained momentum after a review by Ofcom last year ruled that a mandatory solution, such as the one that was put forward in the 2010 Digital Economy Act (DEAct), "would not be effective". Since then the European Court of Justice (ECJ) has also warned that it would be illegal to make such measures mandatory (here).

Rights Holders and the government have instead sought to establish a voluntary system with big ISPs that would result in the websites, specifically those that are deemed to be "substantially focused on infringement", being blocked. This would not include YouTube but there are fears that similar sites with less clout could still be hit.

Internet Service Providers naturally had a few concerns with this (e.g. costs) and called for an impartial judge to review which sites are censored. This would be designed to protect ISPs from legal challenges by unhappy site owners. An appeals system was also demanded for sites that wanted to challenge a restriction.

Another problem is that ISP's can't physically remove or block content that does not exist within their network, at least not without stopping all http (web browsing) traffic. Any form of website blocking imposed by an ISP is thus merely an illusion and easily circumvented (e.g. VPN, Proxy Servers, DNS re-routing etc.).

Understandably ISPs have demanded that they not be held liable if customers find a way to circumvent the blocks, which makes perfect sense as there's really not a lot they can do. At the same time some reports have indicated that the government will threaten to impose website blocking if the voluntary code fails, which is despite the fact that Ofcom and the ECJ have already ruled against imposing similar measures.

UPDATE 10th February 2012

A spokesperson for the Department of Culture Media and Sport (DCMS), which is handling the Comms Bill green paper, has denied that the web blocking proposals will be brought forward into the bill. "Rights holders can already seek injunctions [i.e. the Newzbin2 case] to have ISPs block access to websites dedicated to copyright infringement under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act," it said. "We have no plans to introduce duplicate legislation."

It should be said, and this is rather important, that the comments were made in reference more to the original (mandatory) web blocking proposals than the new (voluntary) scheme. The bill will still include provisions for tackling internet piracy and is expected any day now.

Back in October 2011 the governments Minister for Crime and Security at the Home Office, James Brokenshire MP, confirmed that web blocking could not be repealed (i.e. removed from the DEAct) "in isolation from any other legislative changes that might be needed" because it would first need to be reviewed as part of the forthcoming Communications Bill.

UPDATE 10th Feb 2012 - 12:46pm

The ISPA confirms that the green paper should be out soon, albeit "by the end of this month". They also expect online copyright infringement to be covered but nobody is quite sure what this will involve.
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