Friday, July 29, 2011

Newzbin2: Did BT shoot itself in the foot - and will Irish ISPs do the same?

Yesterday's decision in Twentieth Century Fox v. BT (PDF) introduces mandatory web blocking for the first time in the UK and unsurprisingly has already received a great deal of attention (BBC|Guardian|IPKat).

Lilian Edwards has provided a comprehensive legal analysis, while Richard Clayton tackles the technical implications of the judgment, so I won't attempt to duplicate their work. But a separate blog post might be useful on one point which has received less attention - the significance of the fact that BT had already voluntarily adopted a system - Cleanfeed - to block child abuse images.

In 2004 - when BT initially adopted Cleanfeed - it was even then obvious that there was a risk of function creep and in particular that copyright holders would seek to use the system. In a briefing to LINX at the time (link now broken), however, BT appeared to believe that it was unlikely to be sued and could mitigate this risk by discontinuing the use of Cleanfeed if scope creep became a reality. According to the then Director of Internet Services for BT Retail: "if the pressure to extend the scope of Cleanfeed became too great [BT] would simply cancel the project" and "BT is unlikely to be the defendent of choice for a copyright holder or other party attempting to hold an ISP legally responsible for Internet traffic".

Yesterday's ruling has shown the limits of this reasoning. Once Cleanfeed provided a proof of concept then function creep was inevitable and the idea that BT could unilaterally turn off the blocking system unrealistic. Instead, it painted a target on its back. According to a representative for the movie industry "BT was chosen because it's the largest and already has the technology in place, through its Cleanfeed system, to block the site".

The use of Cleanfeed also prevented BT from asserting two defences that might otherwise have applied - that there was no clear legal basis for imposing a blocking system and that their obligations would be unclear. Instead, according to the High Court:
the order sought by the Studios is clear and precise; it merely requires BT to implement an existing technical solution which BT already employs for a different purpose; implementing that solution is accepted by BT to be technically feasible; the cost is not suggested by BT to be excessive. (para. 177)
In light of this, therefore, it's hard not to conclude that BT shot itself in the foot by adopting a blocking system which could easily be repurposed for the benefit of Hollywood.

"No good deed goes unpunished" - this case proves the truth of this statement, and will undermine other voluntary initiatives to block child pornography by showing how easily those initiatives can be coopted by the movie industry or music industry. There's also a lesson here for Irish ISPs who are coming under police pressure to introduce similar blocking systems. Will they now do so, knowing that these systems will make them a happy hunting ground for the content companies, defamation plaintiffs, and others who may wish to block access to the web in Ireland?


  1. Its the thin edge of the wedge. If it goes unchallenged they will end up breaking our internet. We can't let them protect an obsolete business model at the cost of our freedom.
    The internet is the voice of the people, and the people will help regulate it, once the media industry wake up to digital and offer content at reasonable prices and folk have good enough connections it will all sort itself out. Compel ISPs to block sites and costs go up, stifling innovation and growth. Madness. I blame corfu.
    and fwits who walk through the wrong door at washup with a silly whip behind them.

  2. Anonymous29 July, 2011

    next the postman will be sued for carrying a pirate dvd to your door.

    time that freedom groups stood up to this and ensures the prosecutions go to those who do wrong - the users and the web hosters - and protect the rights of our legitimate internet providers and the freedom of the average use to use the full uncensored internet