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Thursday, 22 March 2012

Ed Vaizey denies Comms Bill green paper delayed till post-Olympics, but sources claim DCMS/No 10 spat over copyright

I have three sources telling three different parts of a tale that seems to indicate the coalition is finally putting its foot down to prevent any further copyright over-reach affecting technology and innovation in the UK.

But I'm hearing a battle in Whitehall is still raging, with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) desperately trying to salvage SOPA-style provisions in official government policy to be announced... at some point this year.

The government is expected to publish its long-awaited Communications Bill green paper this spring. And the Government "means early in 2012" as Ed Vaizey told the Parliament and Internet Conference last October.

"There's a joke in Westminster that spring runs from February to November, but when I say spring I mean spring," said Communications Minister Vaizey in October.

Ed repeated this joke today at the annual Nominate Policy Forum, insisting that the green paper would be published 'soon'.

I asked specifically if that would be before or after the Olympics. "That's a great way of putting it, definitely before," said the Minister. (Before joking that he hadn't clarified which Olympiad he was referring to!)

Ed Vaizey didn't look easy in his speech today, trying to sell his policy as "regulation light" yet taking necessary steps to protect creative content online.  It sounds like he wants SOPA without the controversy.

The minister's unease perhaps reflects the mood in the Government's policy team, who I'm told sent back a draft of the Comms Bill green paper to Vaizey's team with serious questions on whether the draft bill meets the Goverment's policy objectives in key areas such as minimising regulation, encouraging high-tech growth and creating a secure infrastructure.

Enter source number two, who doesn't work for the Government but claims to have seen a draft, riddled with concessions to copyright owners after a series of mainly secret round-table meetings chaired by Ed Vaizey himself, claimed my source.

It's seriously scary stuff. I'm told ISPs would become responsible for deciding what is and what isn't copyright infringement on their networks and blocking infringing content without intervention from a court.

Notice and takedown would be expanded so that a whole website or domain could be taken down on a mere allegation from rights holders that the domain was used "substantially" for copyright infringement.

And search engines would be asked to police results, maintaining both a blacklist of whole domains which would never appear in search results and a whitelist of preferred purveyors of e-entertainment who would always appear at the top of the search results.

It's only a green paper, but surely its not great for governments to ride roughshod over EC Directives protecting ISPs (mere conduit provisions in 2000/31/EC) and basic competition law re whitelisting.

Enter source number 3 who tells me DCMS have been sent back to the drawing board but have no resources now until after the Olympics. All hands on deck, as the torch relay starts soon.

Not only do DCMS have primary responsibillity for the Olympics, but reading between the lines the whole government is entering lock-down.

They don't want SOPA-style protests between now and August and a fourth source in Parliament has just told me the legislation they expected in February was heavily inspired by US bills SOPA and PIPA.

In any case, we're now within the 6-week purdah period where policy announcements even from central government are strictly limited in advance of the local elections (3rd May) to prevent accusations of sweeteners to sway voters.

If we take Ed Vaizey at his word, the green paper will be out sometime after 3rd May, but the Olympic torch relay starts 2 weeks after this, and I expect DCMS officials may have their hands full.

The cynic in me says the controversial sections will re-appear after the fuss of the Olympics passes, but I'm hopeful that David Cameron's team has got the message that copyright and content protection is only a small part of the wider digital economy.

@JamesFirth

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