Jeremy Hunt urges web firms to join anti-piracy drive

Image caption,
Jeremy Hunt wants net firms to do more to prevent access to pirate sites

UK Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt has delivered a hard-hitting speech, calling on net firms, advertisers and credit card companies to cut ties with websites that link to unlawful content.

In a speech to the Royal Television Society, he said he wanted to make it harder for such sites to prosper.

Ideally the government would like to see Google remove pirate sites from its search engine completely.

But Google's response suggested this was unlikely.

"Without a court order, any copyright owner can already use our removals process to inform us of copyright infringing content and have it removed from Google Search," the firm said in a statement.

More difficult

It may not be enough for Mr Hunt, who appeared to be on an anti-piracy crusade.

In his speech, he denied that blocking access to pirated content was an attack on net neutrality.

"Unlawfully distributing copyrighted material is theft - and a direct assault on the freedoms and rights of creators of content to be rewarded fairly for their efforts," he said.

"We do not allow certain products to be sold in the shops on the High Street, nor do we allow shops to be set up purely to sell counterfeited products. Likewise we should be entitled to make it more difficult to access sites that are dedicated to the infringement of copyright," he added.

Many of the changes mooted by Mr Hunt are destined for the new Communications Act which is due to become law towards the end of the current Parliament in 2015.

Suggested measures include:

  • A cross-industry body, perhaps modelled on the Internet Watch Foundation, to be charged with identifying infringing websites against which action could be taken
  • A streamlined legal process to make it possible for the courts to act quickly
  • A responsibility on search engines and ISPs to take reasonable steps to make it harder to access sites that a court has deemed contain unlawful content or promote unlawful distribution of content
  • A responsibility on advertisers to take reasonable steps to remove their advertisements from these sites
  • A responsibility on credit card companies and banks to remove their services from these sites.

The hope is that the tough new measures will sit alongside the already controversial anti-piracy legislation outlined in the Digital Economy Act (DEA).

The DEA remains in a state of suspended animation as the government waits for the European Parliament to approve changes to it.

For its part, Google said that it felt that its current anti-piracy policies were sufficient.

It operates a takedown process in which it removes links identified as infringing copyright. Last year it removed three million items from its search engine.

The company said that it had improved takedown times with an average response of four hours. It is also set to change its auto-complete tool to eradicate terms associated with piracy.

Expensive nightmare

Jim Killock, chief executive of the Open Rights Group, said the proposals set a dangerous precedent.

"It is pretty dangerous to ask credit card companies or Google to decide who is guilty," he said.

"Once again Mr Hunt has listened to the lobbyists and has made no attempt to work out the scale of the problem. We are back where we were with the DEA, which is proving unworkable and an expensive nightmare," he said.

Other measures announced in Mr Hunt's speech included a promise to establish a new regulatory framework for the newspaper industry.

He said a cross-media approach to regulation was vital, as broadcasters, newspapers and internet companies developed new products for smartphones, tablet computers and web TV.

In the wake of the phone-hacking scandal, the public would demand a "robust" solution and he called on the industry to come up with one.

"Our free press has served us incredibly well. So we don't want any changes to result in the back-door imposition of statutory broadcast-style regulation. But if we are to avoid this, the public will insist on a system of robust, independent regulation with credible sanction-making power," he said.

He also spoke about the broadband landscape. He said the government's ambition to make the UK the best place for broadband in Europe by 2015 was on track. But, with countries such as Singapore introducing speeds of up to 1 gigabit per second as standard, it wasn't enough.

He said that plans for other firms to share BT's poles and ducts were "taking too long" and pledged to speed up the process.

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