UK Checks Whether Its Site Blocking Piracy Measures Can Really Work

UK media regulator Ofcom has been asked by culture secretary Jeremy Hunt to review one part of anti-piracy law in the country’s Digital Economy Act “to assess whether (it) could work”.

That part is a clause which would allow courts, at rightsholders’ behest, to level injunctions forcing ISPs to block access to websites that mostly host copyrighted material without authorisation.

This process is not currently in effect, despite the controversial Digital Economy Bill having been passed last year. At the last minute, the corresponding clause 18 was removed in favour of a commitment that the measure would receive specific parliamentary debate and approval, which has not yet been granted.

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

Parallel to this site-blocking measure, the Digital Economy Act does include provision against P2P piracy. ISPs, at rightsholders’ behest, will be compelled to educate, warn and eventually throttle the connections of broadband customers who repeatedly download unlawfully.

But, despite the act’s assent in to law last year, even this measure has not actually been implemented. Ofcom has not yet produced a code of conduct under which it would manage the system.

So, Hunt’s announcement in no way amounts to a repeal of the act – but it is one more possible chipping away at a law whose adoption is looking decreasingly certain. In November, the House Of Commons’ media, culture and sport committee of MPs announced it would launch its own review in to the act’s “practicality and likely effectiveness”, while BT (NYSE: BT) and TalkTalk are awaiting a judicial review in to the act itself.

Although the P2P measures had passed last year, the music industry has spent the period since raising awareness of what it says is the growing piracy threat from websites and cyberlockers like forums and Rapidshare. It’s these sites to which the site blocking measure would apply.

The content lobby had essentially won the Digital Economy Bill. But there are now multiple opportunities for things to go awry.