UK Government Pressuring Search Engines To Censor Results In Favor Of Copyright Industries

from the backroom-deals dept

One of the most insidious aspects of recent Internet policy-making is that much of it is taking place behind closed doors, with little or no consultation -- think of SOPA, PIPA, ACTA and TPP. But there's another dangerous trend: the rise of "informal" agreements between the copyright industries and Internet service providers.

With the implicit threat that tough legislation will be brought in if voluntary agreements aren't drawn up promptly enough, governments are using this technique to avoid even the minimal scrutiny that consultations on proposed new laws would permit. This allows all kinds of bad ideas to be forced through without any evidence that they will help and without the chance for those affected to present their viewpoints.

James Firth has a disturbing post about a proposed "voluntary" scheme involving search engines in the UK:

We know laws such as the UK's Digital Economy Act and America's SOPA/PIPA met incredible resistance from the tech industry and internet users, and readers of this blog and Open Rights Group supporters are already aware the UK government has switched tack from legislating to encouraging agreements directly between service providers and copyright owners.

What we didn't know until now is the extent that the UK government and in particular Ed Vaizey, Minister for Culture, Communications and the Creative Industries, is pressurising search engines to police search results in a way that goes well beyond notice and take-down.

I'm told a consortium of search engines at a meeting on Tuesday were accused of a "retrograde step" after failing to make progress on a proposal by music rights holders for a system to promote "good" music resellers and demote "bad" in the search rankings.
What is being proposed is out-and-out censorship and doctoring of search engine results through the use of blacklists and whitelists:
The blacklist is of websites accused of infringement. These sites will never appear in search results. That's the whole site, not just the pages from the site with infringing content. And this is not a court process, it's a notification system allowing studios to tell search engines directly who the bad guys are.

A white-list of "approved" online music and film services will be artificially promoted for music/film oriented searches.
That is, absolute power over search engines' results in these areas would be handed to industries that hardly have a good track record for adopting a proportionate approach to tackling unauthorized downloads. In particular, they are unlikely to lose much sleep over all the legitimate content that will become invisible when sites of borderline legality are removed from search engines' results "just to be on the safe side." And there are no indications that there would be any oversight as to who goes on the lists, or any right of appeal -- making it a purely extra-judicial punishment.

The good news is that the search engines seem to be resisting this move -- for the moment. As Firth writes:

I'm told that whilst search engine providers are both keen to strictly abide by all national laws and also willing to work with content owners to provide easy-to-use notice and take-down systems (under the EU E-Commerce Directive and US DMCA), they are "drawing the line" at doctoring search results to suit one relatively small group of economic interests.
The whitelist is anyway problematic, since it might be seen as collusion in anti-competitive behavior, and incur the wrath of the European Commission. Worryingly, one other suggestion from the copyright industries seems to be more acceptable: cutting off the funding of sites in the same way that SOPA proposed.
On funding a meeting was held last Wednesday at the Department for Media, Culture and Sport between rights holders, and advertisers and payment service providers.

I'm told in that meeting a broad consensus was reached to create a blacklist of websites where no advertiser would be allowed to advertise or face expulsion from industry bodies such as the Internet Advertising Bureau (IAB).
But even that seems an extremely dangerous step to take because it raises important questions about who will draw up such a blacklist, on what criteria, and how will those placed on it be able to appeal.

That exposes one of the key problems with these "voluntary" agreements: those pushing for them have no interest in striking a balance, or in building in safeguards for those most affected -- it's all about getting a quick-and-dirty fix and to hell with the consequences. That's why legislation, with full consultation from all parties, is a far better way of proceeding. After all, it's why we have a legislative process with checks and balances in the first place -- to craft a solution that is both workable and fair. The new fashion for backroom agreements among a small group of unelected insiders is nothing less than an attack on that process, and hence on democracy itself.

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  1. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 2 Mar 2012 @ 9:53am

    Who gets to make the lists? The people who put themselves on the whitelist and put on their competition on the blacklist?

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