Secret copyright treaty targets ISPs

John C Tanner
14 Dec 2009

Back in September, I dedicated this space to the UK's proposal to crack down on illegal file sharing by giving the Secretary of State the power to force ISPs to cut off suspected (as opposed to proven) infringers. I also spent some time pointing out that this was not only overkill, but also unlikely to solve the file-sharing problem.

What's changed since then? Plenty. Lord Peter Mandelson - the Business Secretary and architect behind the above proposal - has created new controversy with "Clause 17" of the UK's proposed Digital Economy Bill. Clause 17 not only incorporates the "x strikes and you're cut off" rule, but requires ISPs to actively look for illegal file-sharing traffic and store data on users that can be used against them in court (refusal to comply would result in a hefty fine).

Moreover, Clause 17 would give "any future secretary of state" the sole power to determine penalties for infringement and give rights holders the legal power to compel ISPs and others to provide data on users and cut them off - all of this allegedly without any oversight from the courts or recourse for the accused.

A spokesperson for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills told the BBC that this was simply to allow the government to be able to change copyright laws to keep pace with fast-evolving media technology. But eBay, Facebook, Google and Yahoo have formally opposed Clause 17 on the grounds that this power could be used "to introduce additional technical measures or increase monitoring of user data even where no illegal practice has taken place," which would "discourage innovation" and "impose unnecessary costs".

Of course, all that is in the UK, so it's not a problem for Asia, right?

Well, not yet.

In October 2007, the US, the European Commission, Switzerland and Japan began negotiating a new intellectual property treaty called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement. Since then, another ten countries have joined in the negotiations, including Australia, New Zealand, Singapore and South Korea, with the aim of completing ACTA next year. Digital content is covered under the agreement, but the details have been murky because the ACTA is being negotiated in secret - so much so that the Obama administration has described the details as a matter of "national security".

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