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The Global Online Freedom Act: Finally, Something Good From Congress

During the last week of March, a US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs panel approved legislation seeking to bar US companies from assisting foreign countries with their efforts to censor the Internet or monitor their citizens’ Internet or mobile communications.

Specifically, the legislation known as the The Global Online Freedom Act and sponsored by Congressman Chris Smith, R-NJ, would do the following:

  • Bar US firms from exporting hardware or software to countries that intend to use it to spy on or censor their citizens.
  • Require the US State Department to identify in its annual Country Report on Human Rights Practices which countries are restricting access to the Internet.
  • Require companies listed on US stock exchanges to disclose to the SEC what kind of information they are sharing with repressive regimes and whether or not they notify users when they block access to content as requested by such regimes.

In addition, the latest version of the bill includes some changes sought to address industry concerns, mainly a safe harbor provision for companies who join the Global Network Initiative, a multi-stakeholder group aiming to protect and advance freedom of expression and privacy in the ICT sector, from having to report such information to the SEC.

The revised version of the bill has attracted the support of Yahoo! which was criticized several years ago when it provided information about a dissident journalist to the Chinese government. The journalist was subsequently imprisoned because of that information.

Ironically and despite efforts by Congress to censor the Internet at home with SOPA that was stopped by popular uproar, the Global Online Freedom Act is expected to face an uphill battle to become law as previous versions of the bill have failed to gain traction. Nevertheless, perhaps the revised bill addressing industry concerns will have a better shot at passing. 

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The Digital Economy Act: The UK’s SOPA Set to Become Law

After BT and TalkTalk, two of the UK’s largest ISPs lost their legal challenge against the Digital Economy Act of 2010, it appears that the controversial anti-piracy law now has the green light to be implemented. Under the new law, a system is established that will ease the tracking down of copyright infringers and the suing of “persistent” infringers. Moreover and after a minimum period of one year, the Digital Economy Act allows for “technical measures” that will reduce the quality of or potentially terminate the Internet access of infringers.

However, both BT and TalkTalk had complained that the law was not only incompatible with European law but it also put an unfair burden on ISPs to pay the costs of the copyrights-holders’ crackdown on illicit file downloading. Nevertheless and after a two year court battle, a court of appeal ruling has found that the Digital Economy Act to be both legal and compatible with European law.

UK ISPs will now have to pay 25% of the qualifying costs incurred by media regulator Ofcom in the setting up and running of (e.g. fees incurred to identify Internet subscribers breaking the law) an appeals body for alleged filesharers and copyright infringers but they won’t have to pay a proportion of the case fees attached to the act. The remaining 75% of the costs will be borne by the copyright holders. In addition, BT and TalkTalk must also pay 93% of the costs of the legal challenge – which is estimated to easily run into the six figures.

And while the ISPs were more concerned about the cost aspect of the Digital Economies Act, website owners beware: The Act also allows copyright holders to flag and ban any URL that contains copyrighted material – just like the SOPA law would have done in the USA. Hence and as the Digital Economy Act comes into force, ISPs like BT and TalkTalk will effectively be forced to become copyright policemen who must keep an eye on all of their customers.

On the other hand and if one good thing comes out of the new law it that UK ISPs will no doubt make it clear to their customers who violate the act just who is behind the law, the entertainment industry, when they start mailing out letters to Internet users. Of course, a backlash against the entertainment industry might force the industry to come with a long term and sustainable business model that actually works in today’s tech savy world. Until then, UK Internet users beware: You are now being watched. See How to hide your IP address in the UK.

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The “Protecting Children From Internet Predators” Act

The multi-country Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the US’s Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Canada’s Bill C-11 have garnered considerable headlines but if you are a Canadian Internet user, have you heard about Bill C-30, the so-called “Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act?” Probably not but it may soon become law in Canada.

Unlike ACTA, SOPA and Bill C-11, the “Protecting Children From Internet Predators Act” does not come from the entertainment industry or their lawyers. Instead, the Act comes from the Canadian police force which claims it will help law enforcement officials catch paedophiles as well as prevent online suicides.

However, the Act would also give Canadian law enforcement officials new online surveillance powers as well as access to your online data as ISPs will be forced to provide a “back door” for the police to monitor your online communications.

The Act will also give telcos 18 months to equip their networks with the appropriate technology that would allow Canadian law enforcement officials to intercept your online communications as well as keep and hold your data for 90 days. In addition, ISPs will also need to provide your user information (e.g. IP address and contact details) to law enforcement as quickly as possible (without a court order) in an “emergency.”  

If this bill sounds like something you might not think is a good idea (or one that could be abused by law enforcement), then you “can either stand with us or with the child pornographers” in the words of Vic Toews, Canada’s public safety minister – a very stark choice indeed.

In fact, Canada’s online privacy supporters have criticized Toews for characterizing them as “friends of child pornographers” but it looks like the fact that the bill is being characterized as a way to protect children means that it has a good chance of becoming law.

It should be noted that under current law, telcos can provide the personal information of their customers on a voluntary basis to law enforcement and in 95% of cases, they do. However, the turnaround time takes an average of 13 days – too long “when children’s lives are at stake” according to Toews.  

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SOPA Backers Demand Similar Provisions in Canada’s C-11 Bill

Opponents of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) may have won the day in the USA but north of the border, the same lobbying groups who supported SOPA are trying to ensure that similar provisions are included in Canada’s new Bill C-11. However, this has not gone unnoticed by both the mainstream media and the online media in Canada.

Specifically, Michael Geist, a law professor at the University of Ottawa where he holds the Canada Research Chair in Internet and E-commerce Law has written a lengthy post on his blog about how the music industry lobby, including the Entertainment Software Association of Canada plus the motion picture lobby, is lobbying hard for stringent provisions to be included in the bill. As a legal expert though, Geist does a good job of summarizing the following two key issues or problems that Canadian Internet users and entrepreneurs need to understand about Bill C-11:

  • Digital Lock Provisions. Geist wrote that a number of organizations (see his complete list here) including businesses, the Retail Council of Canada, creator groups, consumer groups and education associations are arguing that these provisions are overly restrictive.
  • The Enabler Provision. Geist also pointed out that rhose lobbying for Bill C-11 want SOPA-like liability clauses along with website blocking injunctions – a serious threat to perfectly legitimate websites.

Moreover, Geist has written that the music industry is seeking a huge overhaul of Bill C-32 – to make the bill tougher with any opponents being accused of standing with online piracy.

However and in a separate article for The Star, Geist also pointed out that while the lobbying groups have denied that websites like YouTube are their intended target, the ongoing litigation between YouTube’s owners (Google) and Viacom just south of the border shows how some provisions could just as easily be misused – creating an artic chill in both the Canadian technology and investment community. Geist then ended his article by noting that House Leader Peter Van Loan has recently indicated that the government hopes to pass Bill C-11 within the next two months.

In other words, expect the entertainment and music industry to step up their pressure campaign on Canadian politicians to turn Bill C-11 into a US style SOPA law that could have sweeping repercussions for Canadian web users.


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Did the USA Push Spain to Pass the SOPA-like Sinde Law?

At the beginning of January, Spain passed its own version of the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) known as the Sinde Law after former Spanish Culture Minister Angeles Gonzalez-Sinde. Under the Sinde Law, copyright holders can report websites with content that infringes on their copyright rights for the government to decide (within 10 days) whether or not to take action against either the website itself or the Internet service provider (ISP) hosting it. A Spanish judge will then have the power to decide whether or not to shut down the website.

The bill itself was actually passed a year ago in February 2011 by Spain’s previous Government but it had remained dormant due to the inability of Spanish authorities to enact a regulatory framework to support the law. Nevertheless, the new Partido Popular government was quick to see it enacted.

However and according to a recent article in CNN, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) has alleged (by citing Wikileaks cables) that the USA had a hand in pushing Spain into passing the Sinde Law by threatening to place Spain on the Special 301 report unless the country tightened up its online piracy laws. The Special 301 report is compiled by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) and countries that end up on it could be subject to trade sanctions.

Given the fact that Spanish economy has imploded and the country now suffers from 20%+ unemployment rate along with massive debts, the threat of trade sanctions would tend to go a long way to encourage Spanish politicians to quickly pass and enact a SOPA like bill.

Moreover and while the SOPA bill appears dead in the USA, at least for the time being, its believed that a key strategy being per sued by its supporters is to encourage or force other countries to adopt similar laws or rules. Then they can turn around and cite similar rules in other countries as a reason why the US needs to get on board by passing a SOPA bill.

In other words, SOPA might be dead in the USA for now but its likely to rise again in the near future in part to the efforts of US officials to push other countries into passing similar anti-piracy bills.

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Anonymous Launches Attacks on the Irish Government Over SOPA-like Law

Silicon Republic has reported that hacker collective Anonymous has recently taken down the websites of the Irish Department of Justice and the Irish Department of Finance along with some other affiliated websites. The Anonymous hackers also published the phone numbers of the departments’ respective ministers.

According to Irish security expert Brian Honan, the attacks by Anonymous are just a warning shot ahead of Ireland’s decision to pass a statutory instrument that has already been labeled by critics to be an Irish version of the US’s SOPA bill. The instrument itself is intended to cover perceived gaps in Ireland’s copyright laws and would give Irish courts the power to grant injunctions against internet service providers (ISPs) based on the suspicion that their customers are illegally downloading copyrighted materials.

Nevertheless, Brian noted that such hacking attacks by Anonymous usually just fade away as members loose interest or move on to other targets. He also pointed out that the attacks are likely to draw attention away from the real issues and concerns surrounding the new instrument and instead focus the attention of both the media and the government on the fact that Ireland is being subjected to attacks from Internet hackers.

In fact, about half the Silicon Republic article covered ways to prevent such attacks rather than the reasons behind them and why the statutory instrument may or may not be needed. In other words, the hacking attacks by Anonymous are probably not helping the cause of preventing SOPA-like bills from being passed in other countries like Ireland.

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