A year in Digital Rights

Some years you look back and think, thank God that’s over. You wonder how on earth industry lobbyists and ignorant, lazy politicians are allowed to decide the fate of our digital rights, and how they can justify the erosion of free speech and privacy that their policies will cause.

You wonder how companies get away with trivial sounding software patents that shut other companies out of markets, but require little imagination to think up. You crease up in despair as the music or film business yet again shoots themselves in the foot by blocking some popular legal service that might make them money.

But 2012 wasn’t completely like that. To be fair, companies were as self-interested, lobbyists as self-serving and governments as incompetent as ever. But there was one major difference, which was that people like you won some very significant victories, and new movements grew on the back of these successes.


In the USA the SOPA and PIPA bills aiming to control Internet publishing and allow widescale censorship and takedowns at the expense of Internet security and due process.

Protests across Europe caused a major rethink about the international “Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement”, which threatened to push new private copyright enforcement measures onto ISPs, as well as weakening protections such as privacy of citizens, and pushing criminal penalties for large scale, non-commercial copyright infringement. Negotiated in private, European protesters saw the treaty as illegitimate and part of a pattern including SOPA and PIPA of worldwide demands to control, censor and surveil the Internet by copyright lobby groups.

While ACTA was voted down in the EU Parliament, parts of it live on in other international trade proposals including the Canadian-EU Trade Agreement (CETA). Now that a movement is alive to the problems, it is easier to attack CETA, but secretive negotiations continue regardless. European and UK officials need to change the way they do business when they negotiate about the Internet. The Internet touches everyone and everything, not just business and markets.


Attempts to control the Internet come from many places, and the International Telecoms Union, which is part of the United Nations, is being used as a means for Russia, China and other countries to gain control of the development of the underlying technologies. A backlash is developing, and December’s discussions will see the results.


Kim Dotcom’s file hosting company was shut down after copyright lobby groups complained that it was deliberately encouraging copyright infringement. Whatever the reality of that, the seizure of servers and shutting of the service left many legitimate users in the lurch. The seizure itself will also have made many legitimate services nervous about the standards of evidence and the possible measures that may be taken against them if they are in copyright holders’ bad books. It’s worth remembering that ISPs, Google and Youtube have all been accused of being party to copyright infringement by different copyright groups down the years.

Pirate Parties and Anonymous

Pirate Parties were elected in several German states, offering to press for digital privacy. Loose Anonymous groupings are increasingly organising street protests as well as Internet actions, in the face of privacy, censorship and copyright threats.

Digital Economy Act

This Act, which could result in households being cut off from the Internet after copyright infringement allegations is still not in operation. Currently, the Treasury are holding it up while they think about the costs. Current estimates are that hundred of thousands of letters will start to go out in 2014, which is roughly when we expect the next election. Meanwhile, the sister act Hadopi in France is proving expensive while the level of growth in French digital music revenues is lower than that in the UK.

Pirate Bay blocks

The UK courts agreed to block Pirate Bay and Newzbin, but file sharing continues at roughly the same rate. Meanwhile the government agreed to repeal new web blocking powers created in the Digital Economy Act.

Do you own your downloads?

Stories appeared over the year, including erroneous reports about Bruce Willis, highlighting the lack of rights to your downloads. You don’t really “buy” e-books, iTunes films or MP3s; you just rent them for your lifetime. Delete on expiry. Yours, that is.

Data Protection

The EU is gearing up to improve data protection laws, by introducing fines based on company turnover, the right to easily retrieve your data and have it deleted. A fightback from US corporations is alleging that it will damage their businesses; meanwhile EU regulators have toughened up enforcement, for instance against Google’s changes to their privacy policy. The UK Justice department doesn’t like the new consumer protections, favouring US business interests over the rights of British citizens.

Snooper's Charter

Labour’s plan to grab the details of all your communications traffic data including mobile and Internet chat was revived by the previously outraged Conservative and Lib Dem coalition. But quick footed campaigning by the Open Rights Group and others persuaded them to slow down and look at the proposed bill in a Joint Committee, which has been very critical. The proposals seem to lack evidence, justification and any useful detail about what is really proposed. The Home Office look incompetent, arrogant and paranoid yet again.

The government will be locked into an internal struggle between Theresa May, whose reputation would be damaged if she has to drop the Bill, and Lib Dems and conservative libertarians who think it represents unwarranted state intrusion into our lives. If you do one thing to defend your rights this year, you should email your MP about this Bill.

Twitter arrests

A spate of ‘section 127’ arrests for sick jokes, ghoulish comments about soldiers and swearing at local councillors on social media sites is creating concern among free speech campaigners in the UK. Calls for reform, or repeal of the section are growing.

Libel reform

Now everyone is a publisher, you’re also easy to sue for libel. It’s easy to suppress free speech in the UK when the stakes are so high surrounding libel. Reformers are calling for a public interest defence.

Porn filtering

Government plans for a ‘default porn filter’ are unravelling, after several thousand Internet users wrote to the official consultation to complain how stupid and dangerous the idea is. David Cameron recently wrote in the Daily Mail that parents would be asked to install filters, but would need to choose the set up in order to protect their children appropriately. Is legislation really needed, since this is what ISPs are already doing? Probably not. Pity it’s taken a year of mud slinging and moral outrage campaigners screaming “think of the children” to come full circle to where government policy was previously. Has Parliament anything better to do, like saving the economy?

Public Domain Day

Every year, copyrights expire. This year, works by authors that died in 1942 enter the public domain, so you can get their books for free, remix them, or even make plays, translations and films without permission. Probably the biggest household name is LM Montgomery, who wrote the best selling Anne of Green Gables. There’s other stuff, if you’re a literary type, and some great sounding pulp fiction. I’m adding Alexander Belyayev’s Professor Dowell’s Head to my new year reading list. It seems it is one of the first sci-fi novels about a disembodied head being kept alive by an evil scientist. Great!

Is it just me, or does copyright last a bit longer than is reasonable?

Next year

2013 will be another busy year, but it might be a year where we keep winning. Maybe not everything, but at least some things. As more and more people become dependent on digital technologies, their interest in defending reasonable laws becomes stronger, and it becomes harder for governments to follow their analogue instincts.



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