Digital duties, not rights, should shape our world

The internet has the potential to right wrongs and save the irreplaceable — if we let it
Written by Leader , Contributor

Moments from his death, Londoner Ian Tomlinson was knocked to the ground from behind by a masked policeman wielding a baton. We know this, because a fund manager from New York took footage of the assault.

Days afterwards, disquieted by the official story repeated by newspapers and television, that amateur cameraman sent the video file back from America to The Guardian, which published it on its website.

Section 76 of the Counter-Terrorism Act 2008, which came into effect in February, makes it an offence punishable by up to 10 years in prison to collect or distribute information about a police officer in a way that might help terrorists, often interpreted as inciting disorder. The police asked The Guardian to remove the video. The paper declined.

In Cologne in March, the building containing the city archive collapsed on top of one of Europe's largest collections of original historical documents. Thirty kilometres of irreplaceable documents, some dating back to the 10th century, were buried. Many have most likely been destroyed. The authorities have issued a call asking for anyone who had copies of any of the documents to get in touch: the safest back-up, digitisation and distribution across the Internet, is extremely expensive.

Most readers would do it for free, if they could. But taking scans or photographs of any historical document in archives is often discouraged, as copyright law on original manuscripts is so complex — in the UK, unpublished manuscripts from before 1989 are automatically copyrighted until at least 2039 — that it's far safer and more responsible for archivists to deny requests than risk law suits.

If The Guardian had been silenced by Section 76 — a law peculiarly powerful in the age of Flickr and YouTube — a terrible act and its more terrible implications might have gone undetected. If nobody dares take a picture of an original manuscript before it is destroyed then it is lost forever. The lawyers can deny: they cannot restore.

In these cases, the laws do more harm than good. It should be the duty of all who care about justice to watch the state as closely as it watches us, not a crime. It should be a condition of access to rare items in archives, not an unpardonable sin, that you take a copy, and publish that document for open access on the net.

The digital world has the potential to save us and the things we value in ways previously impossible. Salvation may come at a cost: its denial is far more expensive.


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