Issue of web access raises hackles at conference


THE PUNISHMENT for breakers of the “three strikes” illegal download rule was “exceptionally disproportionate”, the vice-chairman of the UN Human Rights Committee told a Dublin conference yesterday.

The internet was a vehicle for a wide range of human rights so excluding someone from it was an “extraordinary penalty”, Prof Michael O’Flaherty told the Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) conference on internet freedom.

The “three strikes” rule relates to laws in Ireland and other countries where users ignoring warnings for illegal downloads can have their internet access cut.

The international conference is being hosted by Ireland, which holds the OSCE chairmanship.

Delegates representing governments of 56 member states in Europe, central Asia and north America, as well as civil society and business representatives, met yesterday in Dublin Castle. The two-day event is looking at how the internet can remain an open forum for freedom of expression and other human rights.

Prof O’Flaherty said the rights of copyright holders to make a living had to be balanced with the right to freedom of expression.

But Helen Sheehy of the Irish Music Rights Organisation told the conference the “three strikes” rule was fundamental to the rights of artists to their property, work and freedom of expression.

Ms Sheehy said she was “astounded” that people who wanted “to get stuff for free on the internet” had been aligned with free speech and freedom of expression.

Activist and blogger Cory Doctorow described artists arguing for censorship as “revolting” . There was no way to create a digital rights system without also designing something to allow for a police state, he said. He suggested a blanket music licence paid through internet service providers to pay musicians for free downloading of music. Ms Sheehy countered that this would mean income distributed equally, irrespective of whether the artist was good or bad.

Moves toward internet regulation should be greeted with caution or people would be “appalled” in 20 years’ time, Prof O’Flaherty said, pointing out that every time there was a new medium there was a tendency for states to bring in a new regulatory framework.

He was among others who felt the existing human rights framework was “sturdy” enough to allow internet freedom of expression.

Human rights and fundamental freedoms did not change with new technologies, Frank la Rue, the UN special rapporteur on the promotion of the right to freedom of expression told the conference.There was no need for a new set of standards on freedom of expression and the internet, because the principles were the same.

Freedom of expression was a fundamental right which “has to be defended in the internet era”, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore said yesterday. He hoped that “in time” an “international agreement and understanding that defends freedom of expression on the internet” would emerge from work done at the conference.

Concern about both private and government internet regulation was expressed yesterday.

Executive director of human rights organisation Article 19 Agnes Callamard was “immensely worried” that regulation of internet content should be left to private companies with no legitimacy in that context. Censorship should be based on the law and should “not be in the hands of a company”, she said.

“Too many governments” were filtering and censoring content, and perpetuating internet shutdowns, Thomas Melia of the US state department said. Some were using terms such as “information security” to try to dress up repression, he added.