Posts on this blog represent my opinion. It may be my considered opinion on the basis of my formal study of law and technology. But it is not legal advice. It must not be treated as, or acted upon as, legal advice and no liability is accepted for doing so.

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

3 Strikes: Here We Go Again

A little while back I blogged about how the Digital Britain report appeared to accept that delivery of government services by internet was so important that disconnection as a sanction for filesharing was a step too far. (For earlier discussions of Three Strikes and Amendment 138, see here, here, here and here.) Well, as is being extensively reported (Guardian, Technollama, BoingBoing) it now appears that there has been if not exactly a U-turn then certainly a sharp veer in the direction of harsher measures - 'harsher' meaning 'including disconnection from the internet'.

So what exactly is being said? This release from the Central Office of Information announces not new laws but rather a revised consultation process regarding sanctions for filesharing. It seems that following feedback from rightsholder organisations (and more on that below) HM Government has decided both that the original timescale - which would not have seen measures implemented until 2012 - was too long, and that it was wrong to rule out disconnection as a sanction.

What we now therefore have is a revised and extended consultation from the Dept of Business, Innovation and Skills (PDF here) seeking further input on a number of these issues. Some parts of this consultation particularly caught my eye. For example:

"Any technical measures deemed necessary and appropriate by the Secretary of State would be introduced by Ofcom via secondary legislation."

It's important to note that 'secondary legislation' means statutory instruments which are not voted on by MPs, although MPs can register objections to them - if they hear about them in advance amidst New Labour's avalanche of secondary legislation. In other words, our MPs won't be asked to vote on this.

"It would be important to ensure as far as possible that innocent people who may be affected by such technical measures would retain access to the Internet services they need, including online public services."

That's jolly nice to hear, although 'as far as possible' includes quite a lot. I may be being unduly cynical, but I can't help wondering if the terminals in local libraries (or as Tower Hamlets now calls them, 'Idea Stores') will be deemed to provide such essential access.

Then we get onto the question of measuring illicit filesharing and defining what is and isn't acceptable. The original plan was for a detailed study of this, on the basis that policy should be based on evidence. Actually, I take my earlier words back - here there is a blatant handbrake turn.

"Evidence – although we have no doubt Ofcom would have carried out their research under the original proposals in their usual thorough manner, measuring unlawful P2P activity across a range of networks and different content is extremely difficult."

This is what a former colleague of mine called 'filing in the TOO DIFFICULT' tray.'

"On reflection, using a precisely defined “trigger” as the basis for introducing technical measures would not be sufficiently flexible (for example it would not allow the wider health of the broadband or content markets to be taken into account), and under-estimated the inherent difficulties of measuring this unlawful activity with precision."

Or, to put it another way, drawing a line in the sand involves awkward questions about where the line should go...

"In reaching his decision, the Secretary of State will have to carefully weigh the evidence available to him and make any order on the basis of defendable information based largely but not exclusively on the reports from Ofcom." instead lets listen largely to Ofcom's general thoughts, plus input from other sources (I can't imagine who.)

"But even so, the Secretary of State can do this much quicker than the process which the regulator would have to go through if acting alone."

Because when a large rights organisation is breathing down your neck, speed, rather than accuracy, is of the essence!

Then we get onto talking about disconnection.

"Since the issue of the consultation some stakeholders have argued strongly that none of those technical measures is powerful enough to have a significant deterrent effect on infringing behaviour."

In other words, the self-appointed gamekeepers are not surprisingly complaining about being denied sufficiently big mantraps.

"Taking those points into account, although we continue to regard the uptake and use of Internet services as essential to a digital Britain, we are considering the case for adding suspension of accounts into the list of measures that could be imposed."

Translation: "Having been told that we're a bunch of wusses, the nuclear option is back on the table."

"...this step would obviously be a very serious sanction as it would affect all members of a household equally, and might disrupt access to other communications, so it should be regarded as very much a last resort."

I can't help but read this as a rearguard sop to the original conclusions of the Digital Britain Report. Once again though we have weasel words; it's all well and good to say that a measure should be 'regarded as very much a last resort' but will that be the case in practise? We lawyers are told to put our client's case at its highest; if disconnection is available, that's what we're going to be expected to push for.

"As ever we would need to ensure any such measure fully complied with both UK and EU legislation."

Well, that's all right then because we have Amendment 138 to the Telecoms Package to protect us. Except, that as the splendid and endlessly energetic Monica Horten has detailed over at, the EU Commission is trying very hard to water it down with, as Monica notes, UK Government support. In other words, the Government position is on the one hand that disconnection should be in accordance with UK and EU law, and on the other that UK and EU law should not preclude disconnection.

So where is all this coming from? A number of commentators have observed that only a few weeks ago Lord Mandelson dined with media mogul David Geffen (see this Times report from last week, which nicely anticipates today's developments). I'm not going to speculate, but it is hard to avoid the feeling that more than a little high-level lobbying may have been going on, as evidenced by that line in the new consultation document about how 'some stakeholders have argued strongly'.

As this BBC report explains, the latest proposals are causing considerable consternation, not least among the ISPs who may be forced to implement and enforce such measures, at considerable cost in time, money and in all likelihood customer satisfaction. What can we do? The Open Rights Group, for which I initially researched Amendment 138, is urging people concerned by these developments to write to their MPs. Another option comes out of the fact that, as I've noted above, this is still just a consultation. The DBIS is seeking comment on this proposal; now is the chance to make (reasoned and temperate, please) responses to it.

Saturday, 22 August 2009

Cyber-Harassment: Go Directly to Jail

The Guardian reports that Keeley Houghton, 18, of Malvern, has been sentenced to three months' imprisonment for threatening on her Facebook page to kill another young woman. If this sentence sounds a bit harsh for what some might take as childish invective, it was apparently the latest in a long string of instances of Houghton persecuting her victim, including incidents that had led to previous convictions for assault and criminal damage. None of the reports I can find are specific about the offence Houghton was prosecuted for, although the reference to 'Harassment' makes me suspect that the charge was under s.1 Protection from Harassment Act 1997. This requires a 'course of conduct' of two or more incidents that a reasonable person would think was harassment. The report in The Guardian indicates that Houghton had earlier harassed her victim in a pub, so two instances within a few days would certainly be a 'course of conduct' as far as the court was concerned.

This case indicates, probably unsurprisingly, that sending abusive messages on Facebook or via any other social networking site is seen no differently in the eyes of the law from verbal abuse or sending poison-pen letters. But what other legal avenues are open to prosecuting this sort of behaviour?

Another way of prosecuting harassment is under s.5 of the Public Order Act 1986, which defines the offence of causing harassment, alarm or distress. Under s.5(1)(b), an offence is committed if someone

"displays any writing, sign or other visible representation which is threatening, abusive or insulting, within the hearing or sight of a person likely to be caused harassment, alarm or distress thereby."

But it is unlikely that a posting on Facebook would be considered to be such a 'display of writing', especially considering that the Act goes on to say at s.5(2) that:

"An offence under this section may be committed in a public or a private place, except that no offence is committed where the words or behaviour are used, or the writing, sign or other visible representation is displayed, by a person inside a dwelling and the other person is also inside that or another dwelling."

Blackstone's Criminal Practice notes at B11.71 that it was held in Chappell v DPP that receiving an abusive letter at home does not constitute an offence under s.5, because it falls in the exclusion under s.5(2). In the course of giving judgement, Potter J noted that had the Malicious Communications Act 1988 been in force when the acts in question had been committed, they would have certainly comprised an offence against s.1 of it, which (as now amended) provides that:

(1) Any person who sends to another person—

(a) a [letter, electronic communication or article of any description] which conveys—
(i) a message which is indecent or grossly offensive; (ii) a threat; or (iii) information which is false and known or believed to be false by the sender; or
(b) any [article or electronic communication]2 which is, in whole or part, of an indecent or grossly offensive nature,

is guilty of an offence if his purpose, or one of his purposes, in sending it is that it should, so far as falling within paragraph (a) or (b) above, cause distress or anxiety to the recipient or to any other person to whom he intends that it or its contents or nature should be communicated.

This would on the fact of it seem a more fruitful option for charging someone who had made malicious Facebook posts. So, a one-off incident would probably be charged under s.1 MCA 1988, whilst repeated incidents, or one that formed part of a larger course of conduct, would be an offence under s.1 PHA 1997.

Now, it's safe to say that there is a great deal of abusive and harassing material on the Internet. Very little of it ends up in court, and such cases have often been based on defamation rather than harassment. But the impact of bullying should never be underestimated; it can and does ruin lives. Hopefully, this case will show that persistent bullying and harassment, including via online services, can and will be dealt with in the criminal courts.

What it does raise though is the question of what sort of forum such bullying can take place in. If I abuse someone in Second Life, am I harassing them or sending a malicious communication? If I build a large advertising banner in Second Life that displays abusive messages about another user, does that count under s.5 POA? Probably not, for jurisdictional reasons if nothing else, but the question of 'where' the inside of a shared world actually is crops up increasingly often in legal discussions. It's a fascinating topic, so much so that I'd be tempted to write a novel about it - except that my friend Charlie Stross has done so already.

SCRIPTed Vol 6 No 2

There's a new SCRIPTed out - Volume 6 No 2 is now online, with a spread of papers coming out of the recent SCRIPTed conference on governance of new technologies. I'm very pleased to see that papers are already been picked up for wider media attention, with Daithí Mac Síthigh's article on the legal aspects of sharing broadband through wifi having been discussed by The Register and The Telecom.