Leader: Stop self-policing

Let the government and the courts do their jobs

Let the government and the courts do their jobs

One of China's leading portals, NetEase, announced today it has shut its MP3 search facility, fearing it could be blamed for the illegal music files that such a search turns up, even though it has no dealings with the pirates.

Should a technology be blamed for the piracy it facilitates, even if the technology itself isn't illegal?

International law certainly thinks so. The notorious Grokster case, as well as 'piracy taxes' on iPods and computers prove as much.

And self-policing has become all too common, with tech firms acting as their own watchdogs to stave off state watchdogs. Microsoft, for example, has been found removing certain terms likely to anger the Chinese government from the Chinese version of MSN.

For the tech firms, doubtless, it makes a lot of business sense. MSN and Yahoo! both shut chatrooms, citing concerns they were being used by paedophiles. Other options - human monitoring, for example - may have been more effective in fighting paedophilia, as they could facilitate the ability to pick up, report and ban the offenders.

But such tactics would have cost a lot more than a blanket closure. And let's face it, a web portal's goal is not to stop paedophilia, just not to be seen to be supporting it.

Such drastic self-regulation probably adds-up to the tech companies on a whole other level - better to adopt a do-it-yourself approach than find yourself on the end of some huge fine or lawsuit and slapped with a directive that could potentially cripple your business. Grokster may even be wishing they'd done the self-same thing right now.

While understandable from a business perspective, the approach is hardly ideal.

Firstly, it says to the regulators it is the technology, not the user, that is at fault.

Secondly, it encourages others to follow suit. Once one chatroom or MP3 search is shut down, internet companies look around and think if they don't join the gang, they're going to be singled out as the bad guy. As several newspapers noted today, other search engines now feel they should follow the example set by NetEase.

Thirdly, tech firms shouldn't be censors in this environment. Companies acting so willingly to stifle what users can and can't see aren't helpful. China has the potential to be a massive music market. Legal music sites - Apple, we're looking at you here - and penalties for copyright infringement are possible answers; blocking isn't.

This is an issue for governments and courts to wrestle with. Technologists shouldn't be doing their dirty work for them.