On “Abolishing the proposed law” on copyright infringement

Posted on Nov 23, 2009

I usually shy away from discussing politics online, and but it looks like I opened a can of worms on myself on Twitter this morning after I said “A worthy petition, but I wish it were better worded” in response to this petition. Here, I set out my thoughts in more than 140 characters.

For those not familiar with the background, Charles Arthur of The Guardian has a good article about the current proposed changes to British copyright law.

The petition I’m talking about is about the concrete changes themselves, not the idea that the business secretary be allowed to change the Copyright Act at will. I’m not going to talk about that here, I think the flaws behind that proposal are pretty self-evident.

First, here’s the full petition text:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to abolish the proposed law that will see alleged illegal filesharers disconnected from their broadband connections, without a fair trial.

More details from petition creator:

This petition has been set up in response to the Government’s proposal to cut off internet access to those who are caught illegally downloading copyrighted files. We think this has one fundamental flaw, as illegal filesharers will simply hack into other peoples WiFi networks to do their dirty work. This will result in innocent people being disconnected from the internet. What’s more, such a punishment should be dealt with in the proper way, in a court of law. This guilty until proven innocent approach violates basic human rights.

I think the petition is constructed in such a way as to make it easy for proponents of the proposed changes to dismiss.

The wording of the main text is incoherent. It says that the Prime Minister should “abolish the proposed law” - you can’t abolish a proposed law. Something needs to actually be in in effect before it can be abolished. And in any case, the Prime Minister can’t abolish laws (though, yes, he could probably get members of his party to drop the proposals this petition is actually about). The premise of the rest of the petition is flawed too. It’s easy to refute the “without a fair trial” argument - no-one is given a trial before being disconnected from other services. Now, you can of course argue that being disconnected from the Internet is different from being disconnected from, say, the electrical grid, or that alleged copyright infringement is not a fair reason for disconnection, but that’s not what the this petition argues if you take the text literally.

On to the “more details” section. It contains a fair point - basically arguing that fairly implementing the proposed changes is implausible. It don’t believe that it’s the point that most signers of the petition actually want to make though. The argument here is rights.

There’s a basic question here. Should someone be disconnected from the Internet upon being accused of illegal file sharing?

I want to make it clear here that I’m not a proponent of copyright infringement. As someone who makes a living writing software, I know that people copying my work annoy me, and I’m appreciative of a society that sees the fruits of my labour as something worthy of protection, and recompense. I don’t think that people who copy software I’ve written should be ‘barred’ from the Internet though, even if it were a technically feasible thing to do.

At the risk of opening another can of worms, an analogy: Let’s say I start trading group for music CDs. People in the group buy CDs them mail them to other members. The other members rip or copy the CDs, and mail them on. Just to eliminate the ‘scale’ argument, let’s say that this goes on for years. I amass a collection of thousands of copied CDs. I think that this is ethically wrong. I’d side with the argument that it deserves punishment (perhaps you disagree with me that this is ethically wrong behaviour; it doesn’t matter for the sake of this argument). Would a fair punishment be that I am no longer allowed to send mail, or have it delivered to me? I don’t think that many people, no matter what side of the copyright debate they’re on, would ever consider that to be a serious proposal.

That proposal is on a much smaller scale than the proposal to remove Internet access from alleged infringers.

In short, the argument should be about rights. In more detail, I see two issues. First, in the modern world, the Internet is used by many of us for all sorts of legitimate purposes, and it’s only going to be used more in the future. It’s simply a ludicrous suggestion so say that anyone should be ‘cut off’. What happens, for example, when the day comes that their bank will only deliver statements by email, or when they can only pay their electricity bill on the electricity company’s web site? Second, whatever the punishment, we shouldn’t be meeting it out upon allegations. Our society is based on courts of law determining guilt, not on corporations alleging it.

Here’s what my petition would read:

We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to have his Government abandon proposed legislation that would see alleged copyright infringers denied internet access in their homes.

More details from petition creator:

Proposed changes to copyright laws would remove Internet access from people accused of sharing copyrighted files on filesharing networks. We see the idea as fundamentally flawed. Removing the ability to use a medium of communication is not an appropriate punishment for a crime. For example, our society does not remove the ability to use the postal service from people who use it to plan or commit criminal acts - the right to communicate is seen as too important - practically and morally - to remove. Furthermore, even if the punishment were proportionate, the matter should be fairly dealt with in a court of law. Punishment upon allegation should not be something our society permits.