Monday, December 7, 2009 | 9:43 AM
All too often, the public policy world focuses on subtle legislative distinctions and on regulatory details. But once in a while, an issue comes along that strikes to the heart of the big principles. Such an issue erupted last week in the UK - an issue that incorporates two of the most important subjects on these pages: privacy and innovation.
The British Government's Digital Economy bill includes ideas that worry us - as well as other Internet companies such as Yahoo, Facebook and Ebay. In particular, we are concerned about the bill's Clause 17 which, in an effort to fight piracy, would allow the Secretary of State to amend the Copyright Act to "prevent or reduce the infringement of copyright by means of the Internet" without additional legislation. All of us have joined together and written the UK government to express our opposition.
Let me explain why. The government's stated attempt to spur Brits to get online in an ambitious Digital Britain project is laudatory. We do not object to fighting against infringement of copyright: in fact, we are often inventing new technology solutions to help content creators protect their material. A good example is our Video ID technology which identifies copyrighted material when it is uploaded onto YouTube and then helps the copyright holder sell advertising tied to the video. We also understand why the UK Government wanted to make their legislation future proof, to cope with technical change. But, as we have said many times in the past, legislation is often like a slow moving tank in the Internet world. Innovations happen faster than most politicians can even imagine, and to try and future proof laws requires laws so big and so powerful that the risks of misuse far outweigh the benefits.
While we remain unsure of how this Clause 17 is intended to be implemented, we fear it could require the Government to start gathering more information about users Internet habits, even when no illegal practices have taken place. The first step required of any government using these new powers would be to carry out some sort of assessment of whether significant copyright infringements are taking place. That assessment would have to be based on independent facts - and what "facts" exist other than through user data? Crucially, such an assessment would require examining the behaviour of all UK Internet users. This is wrong. We fiercely protect the privacy of our users across the world and do not believe that fear of illegal activity somewhere on the Internet is enough to justify intrusion of activity everywhere on the Internet.
Another concern with the Clause is that it could stifle the Internet's innovation and entrepreneurial spirit. Great new business models need legal clarity and regulatory space to come to market. Having powers like these in the back pocket, able to be used without significant Parliamentary oversight is enough to put off any young entrepreneur wanting to invent new ways of making content legally available. This was almost certainly not the intention's of the Clause's intentions. but good intentions don't make great laws.
Posted by Sarah Hunter, UK Policy Manager