ISPs ask government to protect them from 'policing' role

The government must defend the status of ISPs as 'mere conduits' for the content on their networks or face the stifling of innovation and free speech, a trade group has warned
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

ISPs have called on the government to protect them from having to police their networks for copyright infringement, arguing that such a regulatory change would lead to "de facto censorship".

On Wednesday, the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) published a list of eight internet policy recommendations for the government. In the UK Roadmap policy document, the group said it is "fundamental... that policy makers are committed to ensuring that providers of internet services retain their limitations to liabilities".

The limitations on legal exposure derive from the EU's e-Commerce Directive, which gives ISPs 'mere conduit' status. This exempts them from being legally responsible for the content — including copyrighted material that is being unlawfully shared — that flows over their networks.

"Without this protection, ISPs would be responsible for — and start policing all — content on their networks," ISPA wrote in its annual policy document. "This would lead to de facto censorship, with innovation and free speech stifled, and added costs, and [would] run counter to the government's freedom agenda."

In the area of keeping unlawful content off the internet, British ISPs already operate "excellent" notice and take-down services, according to the group. It added that the best way to deal with content is to "educate, encourage and empower internet users to act safely and responsibly online".

In addition, the group also urged the government to resist moves to make ISPs block websites suspected of aiding unlawful activity. It asked policymakers to "ensure that the Digital Economy Act is proportionate, costs are apportioned fairly, does not distort competition and helps the development of innovative, licensed models".

The Digital Economy Act sets out the framework for a massive crackdown on copyright infringement, compelling ISPs to pass on the details of repeat infringers to rights holders and potentially to disconnect those infringers.

The group said the government should follow the lead set in Europe by Commissioner Neelie Kroes, who outlined plans to set up a single digital market in Europe as part of the Digital Agenda. "[The] ISPA would further call on government to reduce the barriers to a single digital market to boost licensed online content distribution," the group added.

When the coalition government came into power, it scrapped the previous government's Interception and Modernisation Programme, which sought to make ISPs store people's internet and email records. ISPA welcomed the move in its document, but said it was still important that the government "commit to ensuring an appropriate balance between the requirements of law enforcement, the demands on service providers and respect for users' privacy".

Another recommendation covered the need to roll out next-generation broadband across the UK. The ISPA said the government should take a "clear approach to broadband" so that ISPs know exactly what the regulations are that they need to follow.

Investment in UK infrastructure could be aided by a review of the Valuations Agency's classification of dark fibre — fibre that has been laid but not 'lit up' by activation — as a rateable asset, ISPA said. Many ISPs have long argued that this classification means small-scale providers and community broadband projects pay a greater proportion in tax than larger providers, which can absorb this cost more easily.

The association recommended that the government review how it coordinates internet policy across all government departments. It argued that such policy "should not be handled on an ad hoc basis by civil servants in each department with little knowledge of the internet".

"Government can also help in the development of new technologies and services by ensuring that future procurement decisions stipulate that IPv6 is a mandatory requirement and that cloud-based and open-source solutions are considered on the same standing as traditional solutions," ISPA said.

The association's eighth recommendation was that government, industry, web users and law enforcement work out an "effective partnership approach to online safety".

ZDNet UK has asked the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) for their responses to ISPA's recommendations on the mere conduit and fibre issues respectively, but had received no answer at the time of writing.

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