Today I watched a video stream of the digital rights forum held at the science gallery, the event was organised and led by Sean Nicholls. The argument for debate made is that the statutory instrument 59/2012 which was signed into law by Richard Bruton, T.D. on 29th February of this year will curtail access to websites and services in Ireland and may represent a real threat to Irish citizens civil rights and free access to the internet by enabling rights holders to seek potentially costly and damaging injunctions against websites as innocuous as Youtube, Google, Facebook, Twitter, Boards.ie and others.
The panelists were Sean Sherlock – Minister for Research & Innovation, Paul Durrant – GM, Internet Service Providers Association of Ireland, Tom Murphy – Director & Founder, Boards.ie, Simon McGarr – McGarr Solicitors, StopSopaIreland. The chair was John F Kennedy – Editor, Silicon Republic.
While all spoke eloquently it emerged very early on that it was Sean and Paul versus Tom and Simon. Simon spent most of the event sitting quietly like a bold child who has been told he could only attend if he behaved. Which is probably what he was told as the minister has initially told the organisers that he would not be attending if Simon McGarr was present on the panel. A position he quickly did a u-turn on once word of this filtered through to the internet (see the journal.ie report here).
The importance and relevance of this debate is indicated in the fact that, as I watched, the numbers of online viewers rose to 596, an impressive number for lunchtime mid week.
Systematic evidence of a technological capability to control and patrol cyberspace effectively has yet to reveal itself. Shutting down individual sites that have been found guilty of copyright infringement such as Napster has not stemmed the flow of online piracy. This is due to the very nature of the Internet, it is a borderless decentralised space and its denizens are extremely fluent in the language of their world and quite attached to its non-centralised nature. This why legislation such as this is being proposed, shifting the responsibility to the internet service providers. Tom Murphy during the debate provided the metaphor of suing those who manage the M50 because someone drove a getaway car down it after a robbery.
The struggle to control the Internet is evident in current debates regarding the Stop Online Piracy Act (S.O.P.A.) and the Protect Intellectual Property Act (P.I.P.A.) in the U.S.A. These acts seek to place the responsibility on Internet Service Providers (I.S.P.s) to ensure their customers do not engage in copyright infringement. As a result I.S.P.s will block access to sites suspected of copyright infringement. The proposed introduction of these acts provoked widespread debate in the U.S.A. Websites such as most notably Wikipedia and Google engaged in digital blackouts on Wednesday January 18th 2012 in protest to the S.O.P.A whereby they “blacked out” some or all of their online services. Critics of the acts say they are too severe and in the wake of widespread protest their proposal to the Senate was delayed in order for them to be redrafted following further consultation with stakeholders.
In Ireland similar legislation was put forward and passed called S.I. No. 337/2011 — European Communities (Electronic Communications Networks and Services) (Universal Service and Users’ Rights) Regulations 2011 or, as it is also known as, S.O.P.A. Ireland. However in Ireland there was no vote on the law, instead it was enacted by ministerial order as it was prepared in the form of a Statutory Instrument. Despite online petitions and protest it was passed as the Irish government was under serious legal pressure regarding copyright infringement from the big four record labels, E.M.I., Sony, Warner, and Universal.
What is clear is that the Irish government ran scared as soon as the American corporate heavies threatened to sue. At that point legislation was hurriedly drawn up and passed without appropriate debate with all stakeholders.
Tom Murphy shone in the debate at the Science Gallery with informed and well thought out points. He spoke of how during the completely inadequate and rushed consultation process that did take place before the enactment of legislature he asked the question,
“who is representing the users”?
Not only did it seem that the users were underrepresented but it is also worth noting that, despite the fact that it is usually the artist who is quoted as being protected by legislation such as this, there were nonetheless no artists on the debate panel.
Ironically it seems that the minister for research and innovation is very possibly the one person who has damaged potential digital innovation in Ireland the most. The fact remains that legislation such as this is too important to have been rushed, a measured and thoughtful consultation process is required, as opposed to a knee jerk reaction. But the question is, is it too late?