Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Ireland's SOPA to permit three strikes; TDs asked to debate something they haven't seen

It's been a peculiar day in relation to Ireland's SOPA.

First of all, junior minister Sean Sherlock said on lunchtime radio that he intends to hold an emergency Dáil debate on the law - within 24 hours no less! - and is happy to meet with me and other representatives of to discuss it. While I'm glad to see that he's softened his position, it's remarkable that he still hasn't published the text of his proposals and doesn't show any signs of doing so. Consequently, I'm not sure what there is to discuss or what he expects the Dáil to debate. Asking TDs to have a debate in the dark about a document they haven't seen doesn't show much respect for Parliament.

But let's leave that aside for the moment. Assume TDs are given the proposal at some point tomorrow. Pretend that despite the short notice they might have sufficient time to digest a complex area of law. Ignore the fact that citizens will be prejudiced by being denied the chance to adequately brief TDs. The point remains - a hurried debate on its own isn't sufficient.

Normally laws are made through a measured process where both the Dáil and the Seanad are given adequate time to scrutinise a Bill, identify weaknesses and pass amendments. It's clear that what Sean Sherlock proposes won't enable them to do that. Instead, TDs will be left impotent with the Dáil being treated as a talking shop, unable to make any changes to a document drafted behind closed doors.

(Incidentally, it also contradicts the minister's own Programme for Government which states that "The situation can no longer be tolerated where Irish Ministers enact EU legislation by statutory instrument. The checks and balances of parliamentary democracy are by-passed." I couldn't agree more.)

The need for greater transparency is obvious from a second remarkable development today. In a briefing note circulated to TDs and senators, Séan Sherlock has confirmed that his proposals go even further than we had thought, and respond to the music industry demands in the EMI v. UPC case:
"to prevent infringement of the record companies’ sound recording copyright, through... internet “peer-to-peer” services, possibly involving a 'three strikes and you’re out' scenario. This is where the ISP sends three warnings of increasing severity and if the infringement continues, discontinues access to the Internet. It is sometimes referred to as a 'graduated response'."
In short, the proposals aren't simply about website blocking, but could also allow courts to require ISPs to introduce three strikes systems. It's surprising and disappointing that this is happening now - after the Data Protection Commissioner has shown the unreliability of these systems by taking proceedings against Eircom for wrongly threatening innocent users with disconnection - and truly remarkable that the department seems content with the possibility for such systems to be introduced at the discretion of judges with no legislative controls.

If you're worried by these proposals and want to see an open and transparent discussion take place then please support the campaign at

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Anonymous attacks on Ireland will hurt, not help the case against blocking

My heart sank when I saw this tweet a few minutes ago:
Leave aside, for a moment, the inconvenience and disruption this will cause people trying to make use of government sites, the cost of responding and the controversial question whether denial of service attacks are legitimate as a type of civil disobedience. Quite apart from all these points, the action will do nothing to advance the Anonymous goals.

Until now the Irish campaign against internet blocking proposals has been remarkably effective at getting the issue onto the public and political agenda. With the help of the StopSOPAIreland site, the proposed law has shot from almost no public awareness to national prominence in just a few days, and has seen some Irish politicians genuinely engaging with our concerns. It also is giving many Irish netizens a grounding in political advocacy, something that will help as we confront more of these issues in future.

The Anonymous attacks, if they go ahead, will jeopardise this - making it easier for the music industry to spin critics as criminals, and giving unsympathetic politicians an easy, crowd pleasing reason to ignore the campaign. If the headlines shift from "New law threatens civil liberties" to "Hackers attack Irish government websites" then we will be on the back foot, jeopardising what's been achieved to date.

I don't think Anonymous tend to reconsider their targets once chosen. But if they do, now would be a good time to rethink the Irish attack.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Ireland's SOPA: A FAQ

What's this all about?

Long story short: the Irish government plans, before the end of January, to bring in a law which would allow Irish courts to block access to websites accused of infringing copyright (and possibly do other things as well).

Isn't that a short time for parliament to examine it?

The Irish parliament won't have a chance to debate it before it's passed. The law is to be brought in by a statutory instrument, something which requires only the stroke of a minister's pen.

Who's responsible?

The law is the responsibility of the Department for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation where the key person is junior minister Sean Sherlock.

What will the law say?

We don't have a final text yet. But the key part is likely to be similar to a previous draft which said:
3. The Act of 2000 is hereby amended by the insertion of the following subsection after subsection (5) of section 40:
(5A)(a) without prejudice to subsections (3) and (4), the owner of the copyright in the work concerned may apply to the High Court for an injunction against a person who provides facilities referred to in subsection (3) where those facilities are being used by one or more third parties to infringe the copyright in that work. 
(b) In considering an application for an injunction under this subsection, the court shall have due regard to the rights of any third party likely to be affected and the court shall make such directions (including, where appropriate, a direction requiring a third party to be put on notice of the application) as the court may deem necessary or appropriate in all the circumstances.
Can we have that in English please?

Certainly. This will give the Irish courts an open-ended power to grant orders against ISPs and other intermediaries who provide facilities which might be used to infringe copyright. This could include hosting providers, social networks, forums, video hosting sites - potentially most online services.

What will these intermediaries be required to do?

We don't know. At a minimum this will probably allow courts to require ISPs to block access to alleged infringing sites (such as The Pirate Bay). Over and above that it becomes impossible to say - the language is so vague it might, for example, allow a court to require an ISP to introduce a three strikes system or to block certain ports. However, once copyright plaintiffs get hold of this power you can expect it to be pushed to its absolute limit.

So who will pay for this?

We don't know. It is possible, under this draft, that the intermediaries will have to pay for both the legal costs of the court application and also the running costs of whatever they are ordered to do - for example, the staff costs of receiving and administering block lists. In that case, expect costs to be passed on to the end user.

Will the sites to be blocked have a right to be heard?

Maybe. The draft language does say that affected third parties might be given notice of applications to block them. On the other hand, in 2009 an Irish High Court judge was happy to allow Eircom to block The Pirate Bay without any notification or chance to be heard which doesn't bode well for the future.

What sort of standard will be used to decide if a site should be blocked?

Your guess is as good as mine - the draft is completely silent on this point.

Isn't this rather vague?

Yes. By failing to provide any real detail, the proposed law leaves the future of the Irish internet essentially in the discretion of Irish judges.

Could this harm Irish industry?

Yes - including the latest push to establish Ireland as a centre for cloud computing. Here's what tech journalist Adrian Weckler had to say:
With their billions of users, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter inherently find some copyright protected material leaked onto their web services. The new law will give music and movie firms the legal footing to get ISPs blocking. That may not go down too well with Google and Facebook, which are two of Dublin's biggest employers. It probably won't sit easily, either, with the IDA, which may have to alter its pitch to large US social media firms who may have been thinking of setting up in Ireland. (That includes Twitter.)
So where's the Regulatory Impact Assessment? Surely we need more detail about the impact this law will have?


Would this vagueness breach the European Convention on Human Rights?

Quite possibly.

If nothing else will it at least stop illegal downloads and protect Bono's pocketbook?

No. Blocking is easily circumvented. But don't take my word for it - here's what UK regulator Ofcom had to say:
For all blocking methods circumvention by site operators and internet users is technically possible and would be relatively straightforward by determined users.
So why is the government pushing this law now?

In a 2010 decision the High Court held that European law required Ireland to introduce blocking into domestic law, and that Ireland was in breach by failing to provide for court ordered blocking.

Doesn't that decision mean that blocking must be introduced?

Maybe. The law in this area is extremely complex, particularly since the European Court of Justice has given an important decision restricting the use of blocking in the meantime. That decision found that filtering would be impermissible if it undermined freedom of expression and blocked lawful communications - something that is inevitable if this proposal is adopted.

From a practical point of view, the European Commission - which monitors implementation of EU law - doesn't seem to think Ireland is in breach and hasn't taken any action against Ireland for failure to introduce blocking. Irish telecoms group ALTO have also put forward a different view arguing that this law is unnecessary.

However, even if we assume that EU law does require some form of blocking then it should not be introduced in a way which
  • short circuits the democratic process and without proper scrutiny by the Irish parliament; and
  • introduces intolerable uncertainty for Irish online businesses and fundamental rights.
What can I do about it?

If you live in Ireland and you want to stop this proposal then you should let Sean Sherlock (email) (twitter @seansherlocktd), the senior minister Richard Bruton (email) and your TDs what you think of it. Phone their offices if you can - one phone call will outweigh 20 emails. has more you can do.

If you live outside Ireland, you might still email Richard Bruton and Sean Sherlock to let them know the effect this will have on Ireland's reputation as a place to set up technology businesses.

One more thing - is it really true that the music industry wants the Irish taxpayer to pay for supposedly lost sales?

Yes. I hope you brought your wallet.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

"Ireland's SOPA" will be vague and open-ended

[23.01.12 Hello Redditors! Here's a FAQ with more information.]

Adrian Weckler has a worrying piece on government proposals for blocking legislation in today's Sunday Business Post (paywalled). I've taken the liberty of extracting some of the highlights:
Is Ireland about to introduce a law that will allow music companies to order Internet service providers to block access to websites? I rang up the Minister of State at the department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation, Sean Sherlock, to find out. "The statutory instrument to be introduced is completely different to Sopa [Stop Online Piracy Act] in America" he told me. "We are simply addressing the High Court judgment handed down by Mr Justice Peter Charleton in relation to copyright law... I will introduce this imminently, by the end of January." That's a yes, then ...

The Irish governments new “statutory instrument” threatens to do some of the same things as Sopa, mainly introducing the power to force ISPs to block websites suspected of having copyrighted material on them.

While that means curtains for the Pirate Bay (which few people here will miss), it also leaves open the possibility for a judge to order ISPs to block YouTube, Facebook and Twitter.

Why? Because, with their billions of users, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter inherently find some copyright protected material leaked onto their web services. The new law will give music and movie firms the legal footing to get ISPs blocking. That may not go down too well with Google and Facebook, which are two of Dublin's biggest employers. It probably won't sit easily, either, with the IDA, which may have to alter its pitch to large US social media firms who may have been thinking of setting up in Ireland. (That includes Twitter.)

Given the seismic nature of the proposed change to Irish internet access, surely more detailed primary legislation would be in order here? For example, could there be a limit to enforcement of the injunctions? What defences might be available? Could there be exceptions?  "We will probably need a test case to come before the courts before primary legislation such as that could be considered," said Sherlock. In other words: don't look at us, guv. We may be the government, but this kind of law-making is really a matter for judges. We don't really do that kind of thing ...

Politically, this is a no-win scenario. Even with the government about to open the legal doors for the music and movie companies to start directing ISPs' access policies, the content creation industry is frothing and fuming. Ironically, by taking a leave-it-to-m'lud approach, the government is also now attracting the anger of an increasing tranche of the technology and digital community. It is unusual to alienate both sides of a legislative argument ...

So this really is turning out to be a lose-lose episode for the government. Yet the issue wields vast significance for both sides of the debate (the music industry and the digital technology industry). It could also have profound, long-lasting consequences for Irish industry.
The clear implication from that interview with Sean Sherlock is that the proposed measures will be lacking in any real detail, leaving it entirely up to the judges as to what types of blocking might emerge. (Possibly going beyond web blocking to also target hosting and other services.)

This ambiguity - as well as jeopardising fundamental rights - will create intolerable uncertainty for businesses such as Google who might find themselves at risk of business threatening and unpredictable injunctions and will certainly deter others from setting up in Ireland.

Instead, any action should only take place by primary legislation which the Oireachtas would have a chance to scrutinise and debate. As I said previously in a letter on behalf of Digital Rights Ireland:
It is significant that Charleton J. in EMI v. UPC [2010] IEHC 377 referred to any legislative intervention being properly a matter for the Oireachtas. The Opinion of the Advocate General in Scarlet (Extended) v. SABAM (Case C-70/10) similarly referred to a need for legislation in this area to be "democratically legitimised" (at para. 113).

It would be undesirable in any event for a matter dealing with fundamental rights to be disposed of by way of secondary legislation. It is all the more undesirable in this case, however, given the vague and open-ended nature of the powers involved. This is, in effect, a case of delegation heaped on delegation - rather than rules governing blocking and other remedies being made by primary legislation, or even secondary legislation, they are instead effectively being made by delegation to the judiciary.
Although it's the 11th hour, it's not too late for the Irish government to see sense and abandon this proposal. If you agree then you should let Sean Sherlock and your TDs what you think of it.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

The (legal) case against an Irish SOPA

The publicity and success of the anti-SOPA campaign in the US has put internet blocking on the agenda worldwide and Paul Quigley's excellent column in the Journal explains how Ireland is moving towards similar types of blocking - only by the stroke of a Ministerial pen and without any legislation by the Oireachtas. There are any number of reasons to oppose this Irish version of SOPA, and I'll blog about some of them later, but for the moment I want to highlight just one: that it is likely that such a law would be ultra vires the Minister and in breach of the European Convention on Human Rights.

I've previously made this case in a letter on behalf of Digital Rights Ireland in relation to the Department's draft statutory instrument:

In addition, the Irish telecoms group ALTO made similar points in their submission which we supported:
It's now six months since we made those submissions. In the meantime the European Court of Justice handed down its landmark judgment in Sabam v. Scarlet where it held that:
the protection of the fundamental right to property, which includes the rights linked to intellectual property, must be balanced against the protection of other fundamental the context of measures adopted to protect copyright holders, national authorities and courts must strike a fair balance between the protection of copyright and the protection of the fundamental rights of individuals who are affected by such measures.
Specifically, it held that filtering systems were prone to infringe the right to freedom of expression and held against one such system on the basis that it:
could potentially undermine freedom of information since that system might not distinguish adequately between unlawful content and lawful content, with the result that its introduction could lead to the blocking of lawful communications. Indeed, it is not contested that the reply to the question whether a transmission is lawful also depends on the application of statutory exceptions to copyright which vary from one Member State to another. Moreover, in some Member States certain works fall within the public domain or can be posted online free of charge by the authors concerned.

In light of this judgment the case against blocking is all the stronger, making the Department's proposed law all the shakier. The music industry appears to realise this, which may account for its crude attempt to force the Department's hand by demanding that the taxpayer compensate it for its (supposedly) lost sales. Nevertheless, it's not too late for the Irish government to see sense and abandon this proposal and if you agree then you should let your TDs know what you think of it.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

More on the music industry case against Ireland

Today's Irish Times confirms that the litigation is intended to put pressure on the government in drafting a statutory instrument to allow blocking. Excerpt:
THE IRISH arm of multinational music group EMI has launched a High Court action against the State as part of its bid to stop the illegal downloading of music...

The Government recently pledged to issue an order to allow copyright holders to compel internet service providers (ISPs) to block access to websites that they consider are engaged in piracy. However, EMI Records (Ireland) remains unhappy with what it perceives to be foot-dragging on the part of the Government in tackling this issue. It is concerned that the matter could be delayed again, and that even if a statutory instrument is issued, its contents may not be satisfactory. Chief executive Willie Kavanagh is adamant that the instrument should give companies such as his the right to seek court injunctions against ISPs that allow access to music piracy websites. Mr Kavanagh said yesterday that EMI asked the Government to show them the forthcoming instrument, but it has not yet received it, “leading me to believe it’s unlikely to satisfy the music industry’s requirement for injunctive relief”.
Incidentally, the coverage is misleading in an important aspect - this is a concerted action brought by all the major music companies (including Sony, Universal, Warner and WEA) not merely EMI. It's also disappointing to see a story uncritically repeat the claims of one side to litigation without offering either a response from the other side or an independent perspective.


Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Music Industry v. Ireland

The long suffering Irish taxpayer will be delighted to learn that the music industry has joined the queue of those seeking a payout and yesterday issued a summons against the State in the High Court for alleged failure to implement aspects of EU copyright law.

The background to this case lies in the October 2010 judgment of Charleton J. in EMI v. UPC where he held that Irish law did not permit an order to be made against an ISP requiring blocking of websites and went on to say that: "In failing to provide legislative provisions for blocking, diverting and interrupting internet [filesharing] Ireland is not yet fully in compliance with its obligations under European law." Immediately after that decision there was some sabre-rattling from the music industry which threatened to sue the State for damages caused by filesharing, on the theory that if blocking laws were in place then filesharing would go away. (Ignoring research such as that from Ofcom which has found that site blocking is easily evaded.)

Since then, however, the music industry appears to have fallen silent on this threat, presumably on the basis that it would get what it wanted through a statutory instrument which would permit blocking. This statutory instrument isn't yet in place but has been promised by mid January 2012, making the timing of this case all the more interesting - on the face of it, the music industry seems to have jumped the gun by bringing an action before that legislation is in place. Curiously, the normally vocal IRMA have nothing on their website and no press release seems to have been put out - perhaps this was intended as a shot across the bow of the State in case the statutory instrument doesn't meet music industry demands? Or perhaps the music industry feels the need to ramp up the pressure in light of the Data Protection Commissioner's ruling against Eircom's three strikes system?

As to the legal basis for the action, the music industry will presumably be relying on the well-known principle in Francovich v. Italy under which damages are possible against a state for failure to transpose a directive if three conditions are met:
first, that the result prescribed by the directive should entail the grant of rights to individuals; secondly, that it should be possible to identify the content of those rights on the basis of the provisions of the directive; and thirdly, that there should be a causal link between the breach of the State's obligation and the loss and damage suffered by the injured parties.
While I'm not aware of any other action of this sort being brought against a country for failure to implement copyright law, the third element would seem to be problematic for the music industry - establishing a causal link between Irish law and filesharing will be difficult, particularly given the evidence from elsewhere that blocking is ineffective.

Monday, January 02, 2012

Christmas and New Year privacy roundup

Blogging has been light in the run up to Christmas and the New Year but there have been a few recent developments which deserve to be noted. 

Eircom's three strikes system - down but not out?

The week before Christmas brought the significant news that the Data Protection Commissioner had found Eircom's three strikes system to be in breach of data protection law and had ordered Eircom to discontinue the system within 21 days (TheJournal | SiliconRepublic). Without sight of the ruling it's hard to comment, but I wrote about the background to the investigation previously and the statement from the DPC at that stage suggests that the system was viewed as being a disproportionate use of personal data, particularly in light of its impact on the right to access the internet.

Eircom has not accepted the DPC's decision and (according to Mark Tighe in yesterday's paywalled Sunday Times) has now appealed to the Circuit Court. It's hard to see what the troubled Eircom stands to gain from this - though it may be that failure to appeal would jeopardise their deal with the music industry to offer streaming and downloads. In any event, the appeal offers some breathing space - going by past experience, this appeal should take approximately 6 months or so to resolve, enabling Eircom to continue to operate three strikes until then. Incidentally, Mark Tighe also confirms that no Eircom customers have yet been disconnected for four "offences", though a number have had their accounts suspended for seven days.

Ireland's first prosecution for data disclosure

The same week also brought news of what seems to be the first successful prosecution in Ireland for deliberate disclosure of personal information (Irish Times | Independent | Examiner). This case centred on a corrrupt Revenue worker who disclosed information on six separate individuals to her own father (as a "favour to a business associate of his") and to her father in law - a retired garda who was working as a private investigator for Quinn Insurance.

Significantly, this came to light only due to initial fears that the victims were being targeted for criminal attacks - accounting for the garda involvement which led to this prosecution being brought. As I've already blogged, despite the existence of a "culture of snooping" within the Revenue previous cases have not been referred to police. This case isn't exceptional in involving snooping - it is exceptional only in seeing criminal consequences. Had this case not involved particularly sensitive targets (an executive of Brinks Allied security company and a former Revenue official now working against cigarette smuggling in Europe) then it is likely that no prosecution would have been brought.

All three defendants pleaded guilty to data protection offences. Unfortunately, the media coverage doesn't indicate the precise offences involved but it seems likely that each was charged with the offence of disclosing personal information obtained without authority, contrary to section 22 of the Data Protection Act 1988. This presents an interesting issue in the case of the Revenue worker, as the section 22 offence doesn't apply to "a person who is an employee or agent of the data controller or data processor concerned". Consequently, it is hard to see how this charge could have been brought against her unless as a civil servant she was regarded as not being an "employee" for the purposes of that section. [Update - I'm now informed that the charge against the Revenue worker was brought under section 21, which specifically targets employees also. However section 21 is limited to data processors rather than data controllers, which presents a further issue as to whether Revenue should properly be treated as a mere data processor.]

The case also reveals a lack of awareness amongst the Irish judiciary of the importance of data protection. In a worrying comment, the judge stated that "the breaches in this case were not unduly sinister and that they were possibly done without an appreciation of the seriousness of the actions". Remarkably, each offender was given the benefit of the Probation Act and allowed to escape conviction on condition that they donate €1,000 to charity. This can only be viewed as derisory in the context of a serious and repeated breach of trust (on the part of the Revenue worker) and a deliberate attempt to profit from wrongdoing (the private investigator) and if anything highlights the urgent need to introduce custodial sentences and not merely fines for this type of offence. As UK MPs recently noted, these trivial fines mean that "there is no deterrent because the financial gain resulting from the crime far exceeds the possible penalty".

(Yet another) Irish company spying on employees

Unfair dismissal actions have a way of exposing employers with a cavalier attitude to data protection. In November it was Dunnes Stores making secret use of CCTV. December revealed that Galen - a Northern Ireland pharmaceutical company - had covertly fitted GPS trackers to the cars of employees. According to the Employment Appeals Tribunal Galen had "breached the trust of its employees" by doing so, though it didn't address the question of whether this evidence was inadmissible as a result. Incidentally, I see from their website that Galen's motto is "Doing the right thing with the right priorities".