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Internet access: Can the government cut you off?

Is filesharing a basic human right?

The UK has been heavily criticised in a new UN report stating that internet access is a human right.

Frank La Rue, Special Rapporteur on the promotion and protection of the right to freedom of opinion and expression, says he is “deeply concerned” by what he calls a “centralised ‘on/off’ control over internet traffic”.

According to La Rue disconnecting illegal downloaders violates their human rights.

He is “alarmed” by the Digital Economy Act 2010 (DEA) and other “three strikes” disconnection laws that could see illegal filesharers cut from the net, and has called on the government to repeal this law.

And this isn’t the first time the government has come under fire over the DEA.

The Digital Economy Act

The DEA, which was rushed through parliament by the old Labour government, covers everything from universal internet access to dealing with copyright infringement. Among its numerous critics are broadband heavyweights BT and TalkTalk as well as rights campaigners and MPs.

Peter Bradwell, campaigner at the Open Rights Group, says: “This UN report shows that the Digital Economy Act remains a dangerous and ill-considered piece of legislation that needs repealing.

“Disconnecting people from the internet and ill-considered website censorship should be policy no-go areas. We hope this report will help the government apply basic rights such as freedom of expression in their future policy making for the digital age.”

Julian Huppert, Lib Dem MP for Cambridge, put in an Early Day Motion calling for more debate on the subject. “I welcome Frank La Rue’s report to the Human Rights Council of the United Nations. He is absolutely right to be alarmed at aspects of the Digital Economy Act which suppress freedom of speech and endorse internet disconnection,” he says.

“I believe that in light of his comments and the concerns expressed by others, the government must look again at this legislation as a matter of the utmost importance. There are sections of this legislation which, if allowed to continue, will jeopardise freedom of expression and stifle diversity and creativity. We cannot allow this to happen.”

Your right to the internet

Access to the internet isn’t a new right, says La Rue, it is simply an extension of people’s right to freedom of opinion and expression – as guaranteed by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

And the UN isn’t saying that you should be able to stay online no matter what you do; there are a number of clear situations where La Rue deems it reasonable and necessary to restrict access to certain types of content online – including child pornography and hate speech.

But Frank La Rue – along with the DEA’s many other critics – doesn’t believe that such measures are “appropriate” or justified when fighting illegal file sharing.

Counter-balancing

Despite criticisms over the DEA, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) says there are “counter-balancing rights, including to intellectual property” that must also be considered.

“The Digital Economy Act 2010 does include reserve powers to introduce technical measures to address widespread online infringement of copyright, which might include temporary suspension of accounts,” added a spokesperson.

However, any temporary internet suspensions would not happen for some time, and the department says it shares the view that access to the internet is “extremely important”.

Let technology rule

According to Google’s Eric Schmidt - at the first ever eG8 organised by French president and staunch supporter of the “three strikes” law, Nicolas Sarkozy – governments should leave well alone.

“Before we decide that we need a regulatory solution to these problems, lets ask, 'is there a technological solution that can scale, that can work globally, and move very quickly?’

“Because we'll move more quickly than any one of the governments – let alone all of the governments,” said Schmidt.

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