Media: Is the U.K.'s Love Affair With the Internet at Risk?

By Ben Rooney, The Wall Street Journal, 02.05.2012 The U.K. government has made much of pitching the country as a place that companies can do business electronically. Initiatives have included Tech City, aimed at luring start-ups from across Europe and elsewhere to set up in London's East End. The government also invested heavily to fight cybercrime, in an attempt to make the U.K. a safe port. And it is having some success. The U.K. Internet economy contributed £121 billion (about $196 billion) to the country's overall economy in 2010, representing 8.3% of gross domestic product and growing at 10.9% per annum, faster than any other G-20 nation, according to a report published earlier this year by Boston Consulting Group. But is the U.K. government putting its new-found love affair with the Internet at risk through a desire to assert national control over the international Web? Certainly some commentators fear so. Just this week, the English High Court ordered six of the country's Internet service providers to block access to the Swedish site The Pirate Bay on the grounds that it induced its users to infringe copyright. Then there has been a campaign led by Claire Perry, a member of the British Parliament, calling for the U.K.'s Internet service providers to block online pornography and require users to opt in. Parliament recently published an all-party report calling for the measure. "The time is coming when the Internet should not be treated any differently to any other form of media," Ms. Perry told BBC Radio. "We don't accept it [pornography] with any other form of media—why should we accept it with the Internet?" And finally, there was the U.K. government's reaction to the riots last summer in which social networks and instant-messaging services were blamed for spreading dissent. The government mooted, and then very quickly pulled back from, seeking to control social media in times of unrest. Each instance, taken separately, can be argued on its own merits. Protection of intellectual property rights is essential for businesses to conduct their affairs and government would be negligent if it failed to protect those rights. Likewise, it is the first duty of government to protect it citizens from harm, be that pornography or rioting. But taken together, do they reveal an increasing tension with the freedoms that the Internet offers? No, says the government. While it favors an open, lightly regulated Internet, that doesn't mean ignoring the dangers the Internet poses to legitimate web users. "The Government is committed to an open Internet and wants to establish the U.K. as the tech hub of Europe," said a spokesman for the Department of Culture, Media and Sport. "The Internet has brought huge economic and social benefits across the world precisely because of its openness. We are determined to preserve the Internet as a lightly regulated engine of growth and freedom while remaining ready to take action to protect children and vulnerable people as necessary." According to Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, once you have established the right to control one category of information on the Internet, the pressure will be on the government to apply it to other areas. "It will be impossible for governments to resist demands for sites others find objectionable." He cited a recent case featuring a Scottish woman prosecuted under race laws for describing another person as an "English—". This slippery slope argument is one that Marietje Schaake, a Dutch member of the European Parliament who has long argued for Internet freedoms, has cautioned against. "I asked parliamentary questions to the European Commission about the risk of this slippery slope," she said. "And while the Commission said I should not fear this non-existent slippery slope, one year later we see that blocking of sites is more and more often a measure, not only for the worst crimes such as child pornography, but now also for IPR enforcement and piracy." But there is a wider picture to consider. Ms. Schaake recently re-tweeted a comment by an Egyptian who said the U.K. blocking the Pirate Bay made it harder to secure Internet freedoms in Egypt. "When democracies start blocking sites it makes it more difficult to address the troubling practice of blocking sites in other places in the world, which are usually a direct attack on human rights," she said. "Responses from a country like Iran, which showed sympathy and appreciation for the U.K.'s proposed measures to block [instant-messaging] services shows that in a globally-connected world, we don't act in a vacuum in democracies, but that what we do in Europe impacts our credibility in the rest of the world." That governments and large organizations should seek to reign in the Internet should not come as a huge surprise. In his book The Master Switch, Tim Wu, a professor at Columbia Law School wrote: "History shows a typical progression of information technologies: from somebody's hobby to somebody's industry...from a freely accessible channel to one strictly controlled by a single corporation or cartel—from open to closed. It is a progression so common as to seem inevitable, though it would hardly have seemed to be so at the dawn of any of the past century's transformative technologies."