Report suggests ISP’s have a moral duty to police the internet

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

April 8, 2015

A report published by the UK’s top IP adviser is recommending that more pressure be put on internet service providers to make sure that they are more proactive in searching for, and blocking, sites that infringe on copyright laws and rights of individuals. The report claims that ISPs have a moral obligation to protect the entertainment industry’s and individuals’ intellectual property – which brings so much traffic to their services.

Mike Weatherley, a Conservative MP and chief intellectual property adviser to Prime Minister David Cameron, has been vocal in the past about methods that he sees as vital to maintaining intellectual property safeguards for those people who work in industries which fall subject to mass online piracy. These ideas include educating children on the moral implications and ethics involved in illegal piracy, forcing ISPs to blacklist sites that break copyright laws, and even imprisonment for people found to be breaking copyright laws repeatedly.

His new 18 page report, which is influenced by big pro-copyright lobby groups such as the MPAA, BPI, and the Music Publishers Association – entertainment industry groups similar to those that already forced one Irish ISP (and is pressuring more) to start enforcing a 3 strikes and you’re out system for customers caught pirating – suggests that the moral obligation against pirating does lie with the internet providers, and lays out various recommendations for both the UK government and EU commission to strengthen their anti-piracy policies.

The main recommendation is for information society service providers (ISSPs) and ISPs to be encouraged to be proactive in their efforts to stamp out content that should not be there, not just by taking down copies of infringing works that they have been informed about and know of, but by searching for and eliminating as many (and if possible all versions) of the work in question. The report suggests that ISPs have ample opportunity to filter out infringing content’ and therefore suggests that ISPs have a moral obligation to start acting as an internet police force and to begin proactively searching for copyright breaches,

‘There should be an urgent review, by the UK Government, of the various applications and processes that could deliver a robust automated checking process regarding illegal activity being transmitted,’  Weatherley’s report says.

An automated system for broadband providers would be similar, one can assume, to the fingerprint technique used by YouTube, which uses algorithm searches to take down infringing material automatically. This also mean that ISPs would not necessarily have to start spending large sums of money on policing the internet, but instead just be the location at which automated spotting and deleting of copyrighted material could happen in cooperation with entertainment industry groups and the British government.

Although Weatherley admits that it is not always easy to understand why ISPs should do the dirty work of policing the internet for industry groups in such as the MPAA – even though it doesn’t affect them personally – he uses the analogy of a landlord who has been informed of illegal activities occurring in his or her property. Although the illegal activities are not the landlord’s fault and do not affect him directly, he is still expected to raise the alarm and report the illegal activity to the authorities.

The report suggests that Internet Service Providers have a very similar moral obligation to the landlord, and must do more to fight the piracy happening on their services. Weatherley explains in the report that protecting copyright holders’ work is far more important than a ‘no monitoring’ system that protects the privacy of internet users above the intellectual work of hard working individuals/groups of individuals, from the report

There is also the question as to whether society will want to have their private activities monitored (even if automatically and entirely confidentially) and whether the trade off to a safer, fairer internet is a price worth paying to clamp down on internet illegal activity. My ‘vote’ would be “yes” if via an independent body …

It seems then, that Mr Weatherley is a bit confused, even within himself, when it comes to the digital privacy issue, because firstly, his report informs us that the moral stand must reside with the ISPs, and then he says that he would vote ‘yes’ to a loss of privacy as long as the internet policing was done automatically and confidentially by an independent body – but can one really consider ISPs independent bodies if they are being forced into being the internet police by the government?

In reality, we can strongly question the basic premise of ISPs being the internet’s police force (and Mr Weatherley’s whole landlord analogy) very easily, as the truth is that ISPs are in no way responsible for what their customers get up to on the internet. ISPs provide a neutral service that is simply not comparable to a landlord having a prostitute or drug dealer doing illegal business from a garage they rent. The landlord owns the property in question, and it is therefore in his vested interest to stop the crimes taking place – after all, it could affect his reputation as a landlord or affect his standing within the particular neighborhood that he rents the property in – making it harder for him to rent it in future. Also, there is the possibility that knowingly allowing crimes to take place on his property could lead to him getting in trouble with the law himself.

A much better analogy than Mr Weatherley’s for the business model of an ISP, is that of a kitchen supplier that makes knives – just because the supplier makes deadly knives does not mean that it should be prosecuted when some madman uses one of those knives to commit a murder.  It is like that famous American saying ‘guns don’t kill people, people kill people’… ISPs do not cause piracy they simply allow people to use the internet, so if we expect ISPs to police the internet, shouldn’t we also expect the knife supplier to take over the police force? Yet we do not, and would never think that, would we Mr Weatherley?

Then there is the question of the UK already having the most censored internet in the ‘free’ world, and if there are moral implications around ISPs not cracking down hard enough on piracy, then there are even bigger ones over allowing the internet to be controlled via one incredibly wealthy industry, which even gets to dictate how other industries operate. I mean, at what point did one industry get to use governments’ to force other industries into doing work which they never set out to do in the first place (all at extra cost to them), while making the UK give up a free internet at the behest of copyright bullies? Truly sad.

At the end of the day, this report is unlikely to actually translate directly into policy, but it will still be seen by officials as an important blueprint for future action, and will no doubt be looked at closely by both the EU commission and the UK government before any new policies are passed. One thing is for sure, the industry lobby groups in question will be very happy with what seems to me to be nothing more than a bought and paid for report, which lays out exactly what we have heard the entertainment industry saying time and time again – that ISPs must do their dirty work for them.



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