Ofcom To Review DEA’s Site-Blocking Measures

Is it even possible to block illegal download sites, Ofcom is asked, as anti-DEA pressure mounts

The UK media regulator Ofcom is to review whether the Digital Economy Act’s controversial powers to block sites that share copyright material are workable.

The move follows opposition to the act during the government’s recent ‘Your Freedom’ consultation.

“I have no problem with the principle of blocking access to websites used exclusively for facilitating illegal downloading of content. But it is not clear whether the site blocking provisions in the Act could work in practice so I have asked Ofcom to address this question,” said Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt (left).

“Before we consider introducing site-blocking we need to know whether these measures are possible.”

Digital Economy Act faces opposition

Ofcom has been given the job of putting into practice the terms of the Digital Economy Act (DEA) – a law that was passed by the last Labour government in the pre-election ‘wash-up’, with Conservative party support. The act aims to tackle the problem of online piracy in the UK and, as well as giving courts the power to block websites containing copyrighted content, it includes a ‘three strikes’ rule, which could see persistent infringers being taken to court for illegal file-sharing.

However, the DEA has been met with widespread opposition among rights activists and Internet service providers across Britain. In July 2010, BT and TalkTalk launched a legal challenge against the law, claiming that the Act’s measures did not receive sufficient scrutiny when the bill was passing through Parliament.

The Open Rights Group has also claimed that Ofcom’s draft code for the Digital Economy Act is unlawful, as it omits vital requirements for outlining the standards of evidence. It also fails to set any proper thresholds for identifying serious infringers, for carrying out the appeals process or for the contents of letters sent to infringers, said ORG.

The ‘Your Freedom’ site was created last year by the coalition government as a forum for citizens to nominate laws and regulations which should be amended or scrapped. The Free Software Foundation (FSF) launched a campaign, calling on opponents of the Digital Economy Act to use the website to call for the law to be repealed.

“Please use the website to rate the ‘Repeal the Digital Economy Act’, 5 stars out of 5, and add a comment supporting repeal of this unjust law,” said the FSF at the time.

Responding to public demand

Thousands of ideas, comments and votes were submitted on the site, and the feedback has been used to inform government policy, according to a statement by the Department of Culture, Media and Sport.

“When we launched Your Freedom, I promised that the ideas submitted would be given proper consideration,” said Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg. “Although reform of the Digital Economy Act did not form part of the Coalition Agreement, we have listened to the views expressed. The government will look at whether we have the right tools for the job in addressing the problem of online copyright infringement.”

The site-blocking measures require secondary legislation, which will be informed by Ofcom’s review,  and questions of proportionality and compliance with European commercial law and the Human Rights Act are subject to an ongoing judicial review.

“It’s encouraging to see the government listening to people’s genuine concerns about the Digital Economy Act,” said ORG campaigner Peter Bradwell, responding to the news. “The web blocking provisions are a real mistake – they would stifle freedom of expression, for unproven benefit, whilst being extremely costly and difficult to manage.”