Google’s executive chairman has warned the Digital Economy Act could set a precedent for web censorship
Eric Schmidt, executive chairman of Google, has spoken out against the government’s plans to block access to illegal file-sharing websites, claiming this could impinge on people’s right to free speech.
According to The Guardian newspaper, Schmidt told journalists at Google’s Big Tent conference in London that the search giant would fight any attempt to restrict access to sites that encourage illegal downloading, such as the Pirate Bay. He went on to describe website blocking as akin to China’s restrictive Internet regime.
“I would be very, very careful if I were a government about arbitrarily implementing simple solutions to complex problems,” Schmidt was reported as saying.
Digital Act in the firing line
His comments come as the UK government struggles to implement the terms of the controversial Digital Economy Act (DEA), which was passed in the dying days of the last Labour government. The Act aims to tackle the problem of online piracy in the UK by giving courts the power to block websites containing copyrighted content, and also includes a ‘three strikes’ rule that could see persistent infringers being taken to court for illegal file-sharing.
The DEA has been met with widespread opposition among rights activists and Internet service providers across Britain. However, objections from BT and TalkTalk, that the measures are disproportionate and infringe users’ basic rights, were recently dismissed in court. The judge, Justice Kenneth Parker, ruled that Parliament had not over-stepped the mark, that the Act was proportionate, and that it was in line with European law.
Meanwhile, Ofcom has been reviewing whether the DEA’s site-blocking measures are actually possible. The regulator is due to present its report to culture secretary Jeremy Hunt in the coming weeks.
“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 Hunt back in February.
Speaking at Google’s Big Tent conference, Hunt said that plans to block access to illicit file-sharing websites were on schedule.
The US federal government is also investigating measures to block “cyberlocker” sites that encourage illegal downloading. The new bill, which is currently making the rounds in the US Senate, would allow the government to bring lawsuits against such sites and prevent search engines like Google and Bing from displaying links to those sites in their results pages.
The French government has also implemented a monitoring scheme to collect the IP addresses of illegal file-sharers.
Schmidt said that “whacking off the DNS” of an illegal file-sharing site may seem like an appealing solution to the problem, but warned that this could be misinterpreted as a condonement of censorship. “Now another country will say ‘I don’t like free speech so I’ll whack off all those DNSs’” said Schmidt. “That country would be China,” he added.