Our freedom is at risk online. In the wake of the judicial review of the Digital Economy Act last month and the controversy around disconnection from the Internet as a legal option, MPs in the House of Commons put forth an Early Day Motion on Disconnection of Users from the Internet.
EDM 1913 notes that, "corporations should only act to block and censor with the authority of a judicial process..." and calls on the government to re-examine web blocking proposals both in the Digital Economy Act 2010 and the Prevent Strategy from the Home Office.
Robert Halfon MP, a sponsor of EDM 1913 said, "I am deeply concerned about this, because it is yet more evidence that we need an Internet Bill of Rights. An Internet Bill of Rights would provide protection for the individual, and stop companies from blocking the Internet outside of a judicial process, or from scraping our private details - without our permission."
So what is to be done about the move towards blocking users who use the Internet? And is blocking effective? In the case of the Digital Economy Act, Internet access blocking comes at the end of a notification process to the owner of the Internet connection who is downloading copyrighted content that they aren't paying for. There is no guarantee that the owner of the Internet connection is in fact the one doing the downloading. It is quite possible to use other, secure connections to the Internet without the owner's knowledge or permission. And there is no guarantee that someone who is convicted of illegal downloading and has his or her Internet access terminated won't just use a friend or family's connection.
Should access to the Internet be guaranteed unless determined by a legal process? There is a subtle difference in calling for Internet access to be mandatory, free, and a right to all people and saying that if users connect to the Internet they shouldn't be disconnected unless through legal means. Accessing the Internet by contractual agreement between an individual and an ISP is based on negotiation and fees that are agreed upon. Terminating that access is currently determined but contract or judicial action, though we haven't seen much of the latter yet.
Internet access blocking, however, is merely a short-term remedy for a longer-term issue. Owners of content who seek Internet access blocking as called for in the DEA are not addressing their own issues of managing or monetising content in ever new and different ways. And perhaps the implementation of the Hargreaves report or use of the creative commons attribution will enable this to happen in an even richer and varied way. The issue is less about blocking access to the Internet than providing more choice and options in this changing digital age.
But the Prevent strategy issue is more contentious. Should public access to illegal and morally reprehensive content be restricted? Who determines what content goes on public access block lists? And do we really want the government or expert governmental panels to decide? Once this process starts to happen and the government controls what we see at schools or libraries it is a very slippery slope from blocking access to a few things and blocking access to the web and websites at a larger level.
Ronald Reagan once said that, "Freedom is never more than one generation away from extinction." Let's hope that our government is wise enough to keep their hands off of Internet access and let individuals, organisations, and the justice system decide these issues.