Regulation of Internet Content and Copyright

The shift from the analogue to the digital storage and distribution of copyright material poses a major challenge to its producers. This is compounded by the growth in speed of computer networks which means that audio and increasingly video content can now potentially be exchanged between millions of users very rapidly.

The traditional means of copyright protection have largely depended on being able to police the physical distribution media such as CDs, game disks, videos and printed material. There is pressure to translate this system into the digital age by attempting to police the networks and access devices that might be used to take advantage of unlicensed copyright material.

There is clearly a huge amount of work still to do on an international basis in order to develop a workable system for copyright and intellectual property rights that reflects the realities of a digital world. The guiding principle for the Liberal Democrats is our commitment to well-regulated free markets that genuinely serve the interests of the citizen.

We have regard to the fact that the citizen is both a potential producer of intellectual or artistic property who will rightly seek a fair return for their work, and a potential consumer of such material who should not suffer from unnecessary restrictions that weaken the market against the consumer interest. The challenge is to reconcile both these interests.

We do not believe that the citizen as consumer will be well served if a wholesale failure in the copyright system leads to a drying up of creativity as the financial incentives disappear. But we also recognize that there are circumstances in which protection systems can have the contrary effect of stifling creativity against the public interest. We are especially concerned about the use of patents in the area of computer software in this respect.

There are usually many ways to achieve the same objective using computer code. The public benefits from the fact that different teams of programmers will work on solving problems and release their separate solutions as competitors in the market. The specific code each team has written is protected by copyright. Allowing a wide definition of inventiveness for patents in the field of software could lead to a reduction in this creative activity. This might be justifiable if there were evidence that the software industry as a whole were suffering because of an inability to secure revenue for research and development but there is no evidence that this is the case as the sector remains vibrant and growing.

We would also challenge attempts at restriction which seem to be geared towards distortions in the market rather than the genuine protection of artistic creativity. One of the key benefits of a global economy is the ability to trade from anywhere to anywhere. Measures that have the effect of restricting such trade against the interests of the consumer, such as the regional encoding of DVD disks and players, are not compatible with a belief in free markets.

Copyright law in the UK recognizes the concept of “fair dealing” which allows, for example, owners of books to make photocopies of sections for the purposes of research and private study. The fact that digital material can be copied more easily and accurately and then transmitted to a wide audience means that this principle must be redefined for the digital age. This has led to calls for a new copyright regime making all copying illegal and backed up by hardware and software devices that intrude on the private domain. We do not believe that a highly restrictive approach would be either workable or fair.

We would instead extend the definition of fair dealing to include private time-shifting, space-shifting and format-shifting of legitimately obtained works, as well as use of a legitimately purchased product unlimited by time-outs or region locks. Once an individual has paid the copyright holder the fair price for that material they should have reasonable latitude in terms of their private use of it. Measures that are aimed at preventing the unlicensed use of copyright material will be counter-productive if they restrict the freedom of the law-abiding user to the degree that they resent the strictures of using the licensed product.

We must also consider the issue of standards for material sent over the Internet whether it is from mainstream suppliers or from those on the fringes. Our general approach is to support the self-regulatory and co-regulatory approaches rather than responding in UK national legislation. We believe that this is the route most likely to lead to success in terms of protecting citizens from inappropriate material though we accept that if self-regulation fails then national governments may wish to resort to legislation.

Discussions about harmful material on the Internet sometimes seem to miss the fact that the normal criminal law applies here as with any other media. If someone is in the UK jurisdiction and is publishing illegal material or otherwise using the Internet to incite or assist criminal activity then the right course of action is to prosecute them under the criminal law. If they are outside the UK’s jurisdiction then action can be taken using whichever legal channels exist between the UK and their home authorities. As new technology makes it easier for people to operate internationally so we can expect to see a greater need for international law enforcement capability. We must ensure that law enforcement agencies have the technical and legal support to allow them to keep up with trends in hi-tech criminal activity.

While the Internet does not in itself create a need for specific offences, there is a need for specific reporting and detection mechanisms. The Internet Watch Foundation (IWF) is a good example of such a mechanism. The IWF is largely funded by the Internet industry and carries out valuable work in the reporting of child pornography on the Internet. We would encourage the development of industry bodies like this as the most effective way of “policing” the Internet.

There is material on the Internet that, while it is not illegal, causes concern to many people. We do not believe that an appropriate response would be to bring it under the framework for regulating broadcasters and welcome the Government’s decision to leave Internet content outside the framework for regulation by OFCOM. However, this does leave the industry with the responsibility to create its own standards and tools to allow users to use the medium safely and in a way that is acceptable to them.

The concerns about the potential exposure of children to highly inappropriate material are especially valid and may lead to parents switching off Internet access if the industry does not respond effectively. There are already examples of good practice involving software solutions, codes of practice, rating systems and moderation/supervision procedures. Government should play an active role in supporting industry bodies that are seeking to raise standards.

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