Decriminalize File Sharing

This is an English translation of an article that I, and six other Members of the Swedish Parliament representing the Moderate Party, had published in Expressen on January 3, 2008. The article, calling for decriminalization of all file sharing, has started a loud debate in Swedish media.

Last fall, Sweden’s government-appointed copyright analyst Cecilia Renfors released a report proposing to close down file sharers’ Internet connections, banning them from the online world. The responsibility to execute the ban is put on the Internet Service Providers. Internet Service Provides who refuse to cut their subscribers’ connections would be fined.

When the Swedish government sent the Renfors proposal out to agencies and organizations for consideration the criticism was harsh. The Swedish Courts of Appeal questions whether banning citizens from the Internet would indeed reduce online file sharing. Despite several other countries having already taken similar action, none have had good results to show for it.

The Data Inspection Board, responsible for safeguarding the individual’s integrity, asks whether the Renfors proposal is consistent with the protection of private correspondence that is granted by the European Convention on Human Rights. EU directives as well as national legislation say that the responsibility of the Internet Service Providers is to offer a tool for communication – not to keep track of what individuals discuss or what information they exchange. The Competition Authority adds that it’s unreasonable to give private businesses responsibilities that should belong to a government agency. The decisions to ban subscribers from the Internet would be arbitrary without a proper legal process. And so it continues when you read the comments from the major agencies. Agency after agency slams the Internet-ban proposal.

Representatives of the copyright industry are more enthusiastic to closing down citizens’ Internet connections, and they hold up France as a positive example. In France, government agencies, copyright holders and Internet Service Providers have been forced into an alliance. General Electric describes how it works: “In reality it means that the Internet Service Providers must watch what their customers do on the Internet and report it.”

The Antipiracy Bureau describes Sweden as a free zone for file sharers, and defends compromising the individual’s legal rights with the argument that other countries have done this already. Yet why should Sweden adapt to positions of countries like France? Sweden is one of the world’s most prominent technology nations, and our technology friendliness must be reflected in our policies. As part of a global network, we can offer Internet users all over the world the freedom of information that they are denied in their home countries.

Decriminalizing all non-commercial file sharing and forcing the market to adapt is not just the best solution. It’s the only solution, unless we want an ever more extensive control of what citizens do on the Internet. Politicians who play for the antipiracy team should be aware that they have allied themselves with a special interest that is never satisfied and that will always demand that we take additional steps toward the ultimate control state. Today they want to transform the Internet Service Providers into an online police force, and the Antipiracy Bureau wants the authority for themselves to extract the identities of file sharers. Then they can drag the 15-year-old girl who downloaded a Britney Spears song to civil court and sue her.

Will the Antipiracy Bureau be satisfied with this? Probably not, because even the harsher laws now proposed will not stop the file sharing. Already there are anonymization services on the market that make the new laws ineffective. For this reason, the Antipiracy Bureau will demand new tools that further intensifies the surveillance of the Internet. The simple truth is that almost all communication channels on the Internet can be used to distribute copyrighted information. If you can use a service to send a message you can most likely use the same service to send an mp3-song. Those who want to prevent people from exchanging of copyrighted material must control all electronic communication between citizens.

In the late 1970s, the copyright industry wanted to prevent people from recording TV-shows with then-new Video Cassette Recorders. In 1998 the recording industry tried to get mp3 players banned. We politicians have to make clear that we are not prepared to build the technology-hostile control state that would be necessary to satisfy the Antipiracy Bureau and their likes.

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