DCMS illustrates the key issue about blocking

This morning the Department for Culture Media and Sport (DCMS) have published a series of documents relating to the implementation of the Digital Economy Act 2010.

One of those documents, from OFCOM, describes how “Site Blocking” might be used to prevent access to websites that are involved in copyright infringement (ie: torrent sites, Newzbin, “cyberlockers” etc.).

The report appears, at a quick glance, to cover the ground pretty well, describing the various options available to ISPs to block access to websites (and sometimes to block access altogether — since much infringement is not “web” based).

The site also explains how each of the systems can be circumvented (and how easily) and makes it clear (in big bold type) “All techniques can be circumvented to some degree by users and site owners who are willing to make the additional effort.

I entirely agree — and seem to recall a story from my childhood about the Emperor’s New Blocking System — and note that continuing to pursue this chimera will just mean that time and money will be pointlessly wasted.

However OFCOM duly trot out the standard line one hears so often from the rights holders: “Site blocking is likely to deter casual and unintentional infringers and by requiring some degree of active circumvention raise the threshold even for determined infringers.

The problem for the believers in blocking is that this just isn’t true — pretty much all access to copyright infringing material involves the use of tools (to access the torrents, to process NZB files, or just to browse [one tends not to look at web pages in Notepad any more]). Although these tools need to be created by competent people, they are intended for mass use (point and click) and so copyright infringement by the masses will always be easy. They will not even know that the hurdles were there, because the tools will jump over them.

Fortuitously, the DCMS have provided an illustration of this in their publishing of the OFCOM report…

The start of the report says “The Department for Culture, Media and Sport has redacted some parts of this document where it refers to techniques that could be used to circumvent website blocks. There is a low risk of this information being useful to people wanting to bypass or undermine the Internet Watch Foundation‟s blocks on child sexual abuse images. The text in these sections has been blocked out.

What the DCMS have done (following in the footsteps of many other incompetents) is to black out the text they consider to be sensitive. Removing this blacking out is simple but tedious … you can get out a copy of Acrobat and change the text colour to white — or you can just cut and paste the black bits into Notepad and see the text.

So I confidently expect that within a few hours, non-redacted (non-blocked!) versions of the PDF will be circulating (they may even become more popular than the original — everyone loves to see things that someone thought they should not). The people who look at these non-blocked versions will not be technically competent, they won’t know how to use Acrobat, but they will see the material.

So the DCMS have kindly made the point in the simplest of ways… the argument that small hurdles make any difference is just wishful thinking; sadly for Internet consumers in many countries (who will end up paying for complex blocking systems that make no practical difference) these wishes will cost them money.

PS: the DCMS do actually understand that blocking doesn’t work, or at least not at the moment. Their main document says “Following advice from Ofcom – which we are publishing today – we will not bring forward site blocking regulations under the DEA at this time.” Sadly however, this recognition of reality is too late for the High Court.

12 thoughts on “DCMS illustrates the key issue about blocking

  1. Whether DCMS really understand that blocking doesn’t work seems still an open question. It seems too much to infer this from their decision not to press ahead with ss.17-18

    As you correctly say, Ofcom’s report repeats the claim that “Site blocking is likely to deter casual and unintentional infringers and by requiring some degree of active circumvention raise the threshold even for determined infringers.”. According to this analysis, it doesn’t matter that blocking doesn’t work very well, it should be done anyway. That was certainly Mr Justice Arnold’s view, and DCMS may well have adopted it too.

    Ofcom’s further advised that the list of targets for blocking needs to be updated rapidly, with low latency between rights holders becoming aware of an infringing site and that site being blocked. According to Ofcom, ss17-18 will not achieve that, and certainly no better than the existing s97A CDPA. Supposing that DCMS accepted this advice too, it may better explain their decision not to press ahead with implementing ss.17-18.

  2. “So I confidently expect that within a few hours, non-redacted (non-blocked!) versions of the PDF will be circulating (they may even become more popular than the original — everyone loves to see things that someone thought they should not). ”

    I think there’s a simpler and more creditable motive: everyone prefers to see the original and complete version of anything, rather than a bowdlerised one.

  3. @Theo

    They may have made other changes — but the most obvious difference between v1 and v2 is that they’ve fixed the date on the first page to be “27 May 2011” rather than “27 May 2010”.

    Attention to detail (not!)

  4. Presumably a counterargument to the “tools” point is that infringers have to obtain the tools from somewhere. Most likely a web site – which may be blocked.

  5. v2 of the document has disabled copy and paste (in software which enforces the Adobe DRM annotations). This prevents one way of extracting the redacted text, but certainly doesn’t fix the problem. This also makes it difficult to quote from the document, which is rather tedious. I don’t have a copy of v1 to check whether it was the same The original version did permit copy and paste.

  6. In terms of the ease of circumventing, I think that a relevant factor is the purpose of the circumvention – because that will affect whether someone who lacks skills will ask someone else.

    If a person is seeking child pornographic content on the internet but lacks technical ability to find it (circumventing blocks where necessary) then that might be the end of the matter. They might seek out the skills but they might not. They are not likely to ask someone else.

    But if they are looking to circumvent a copyright block, they have only to ask others, and the chances are that everyone knows someone else that knows. Also, someone that does know is hardly going to have any moral objection to the purpose.

    Contrary to what the Judge felt, I would say that anyone that can use Usenet and Newzbin type sites already has a level of knowledge and understanding that would render blocking useless, and that even if they were in any doubt, they will almost certainly have contacts that do have such skills.

    I therefore think that such limited indirect deterrent effectiveness that there might be with the IWF system does not even map to copyright infringement, and that if there is an minimal effect, it is in danger of crossing the line which divides useful (but very minimal to insignificant) deterrence into the realm of futile gestures.

    I wonder if this case against BT is an “Emperors New Clothes” sort of face saving exercise (after what happened with Newzbin last year), rather than a serious attempt to somehow increase revenue. I can envisage it being as a trumpeted success which no-one else chooses to follow.

  7. I find it very pleasing that one part of Government is now finally telling another part of Government of the technical impossibility of implementing certain initiatives the second part is passing (and has passed) into law.

    While it may be (and most likely is) simple lack of knowledge which causes the “redacted” text to be recoverable, I would like to think that, somewhere in the DCMS’ publications group, is at least one Civil Servant with solid technical knowledge and a highly-developed sense of humour…

  8. Following on from John’s comment.
    If the blocking method chosen is sufficiently similar to the IWF one, and someone releases a pointy-clicky program to access copyright infringing sites , then there is a real risk that blocking a site that many would regard as ‘OK’ would effectively result in unblocking a site that was far from OK.

  9. The unredacted text is now easily available on scribd as predicted.

    Looking at the redactions I am amazed that they think any of this is a secret from anyone.

  10. Why cannot the ISP’s be requird to adopt the same measures that subscribers are expected to adopt to prevent infringing traffic on shared connections.

    Either the means exists or it doesn’t.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *