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Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Redactions make a mockery of the public consultation process

Today Ofcom released its long-awaited report into the feasibility of blocking overseas websites accused of carrying copyright-infringing content under dormant powers contained in Sections 17 and 18 of the Digital Economy Act.

Or rather, the Department for Media, Culture and Sport published the report. Then quickly removed it as it became clear that large sections of the document which discuss technical workarounds for web-blocking provisions were incorrectly redacted and therefore readable to anyone outside of a government-controlled computer network.

Note the irony here - I'm told by a government insider it's not possible to read the redacted text on a government-controlled IT system, because the government's preferred PDF reader doesn't allow the workaround used to reveal the redacted text!

@TJMcIntyre has published all the redacted text on his blog IT Law in Ireland and since the report is not currently available anywhere else, I've lodged a copy on my publisher's system here.

But the story isn't one of bad redactions - the bad redactions show just how absurd the government redaction policy is.  Literally anything to do with workarounds - all of it already in the public domain - is redacted.  Proxy servers, VPNs and TOR - all mentions redacted.

Noting that we the taxpayer paid Ofcom £100,000 for this report it's a scandal that large sections are hidden from public view.

The argument that the redactions somehow keep the knowledge out of the public domain is defeated by the report itself, which describes circumvention as "relatively straightforward" (page 5):
"For all blocking methods circumvention by site operators and internet users is technically possible and would be relatively straightforward by determined users."
This raises the possibility that redactions were made for a far more sinister purpose - to make it harder for bodies concerned about the impact of such measures to reference an authoritative report into the specific merits of each blocking regime.

This is entirely relevant as the High Court is due to rule in September exactly how BT is supposed to block Newzbin.

Both @TJMcIntyre and I have therefore submitted Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests for Ofcom to release non-redacted copies of both documents.  Additionally I've asked for any correspondence which may reveal the reasons and origin for the redactions.  See here and here.

Transparency and public engagement is vital in ensuring governments act responsibly.  If we can't see what they're doing through document redactions; we can neither question their assertions, nor reference the findings in future reports.


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