Wednesday 26 October 2011

Newzbin2 - the order

The High Court has just handed down its order in "Newzbin2".

For those not following the story so far goes like this: newzbin (whose site I will not link to for obvious reasons) describe themselves as a "Hand edited, searchable archive of Usenet binary content from the creators of the NZB Format." USENET is of course the grandparent of most peer-to-peer file sharing networks. People were sharing copyright material via USENET even when I started using the internet over 20 years ago. Newzbin do not host any of the material (which is available via USENET) but their site undoubtedly makes it much easier to find copyright infringing material to be downloaded. Unsurprisingly, many large copyright owners do not like it.

Last year, a group of Hollywood studios persuaded Mr Justice Kitchen that Newzbin were guilty of copyright infringement in three different ways (1) their actions amounted to "authorisation" of copyright infringement; (2) they were also joint infringers with or procurers of the infringement of their subscribers; (3) even though they did not host any of the movies complained about they "made them available to the public" which is an act protected by copyright. The case Twentieth Century Fox v Newzbin [2010] EWHC 608 (Ch) makes interesting reading as it explores just how far a website may (or in that case may not) go without infringing copyright.

Newzbin's reaction was to be expected: their operation moved outside the jurisdiction of the UK courts. Undeterred (one hopes they were sufficiently web-savvy to have anticipated the move) the studios applied to the High Court for an injunction against BT to force BT to block access to Newzbin to its (ISP) customers. The studios made use a statutory power given to the High Court to make injunctions of this kind under section 97A of the Copyright Designs and Patents Act 1988.

At the end of July, Mr Justice Arnold agreed to grant the injunction (Twentieth Century Fox v British Telecommunications [2011] EWHC 1981 (Ch) ). Lillian Edwards wrote a very neat analysis of the decision on the day it appeared. As she explains, Newzbin was an unusually good case for an injunction, not least because there had already been a decision of the High Court finding that the site was involved in copyright infringement. Other cases may be more difficult for rights holders to argue. It will depend.

Mr Justice Arnold postponed deciding on the exact form of the injunction — that is exactly what BT should be ordered to do — until he had heard further submissions from the parties. His decision on the form of order was what was handed down today.

A huge simplifying factor is that BT are already running a system known as Cleanfeed which is used to filter out material on the Internet Watch Foundation's list of suspect IP addresses and blacklisted URL's. This meant the order could require BT to add IP addresses and URL's supplied by the studios to its Cleanfeed list.

Cleanfeed is not used with all BT ISP products. In particular it is not used for what is effectively wholesale supply of internet connectivity, nor to particular customers in certain cases — one example being the police who, one imagines, absolutely do wish to be able to access illegal material for investigatory purposes. The order applies "In respect of its customers to whose internet service the system known as Cleanfeed is applied whether optionally or otherwise". Read literally that would appear to mean that customers who have Cleanfeed as an option but have opted out would still have to be filtered by BT. It is unclear to me whether that is what the judge intends.

The order makes it clear that BT is not required to carry out deep packet inspection. BT need simply rely on the IP addresses and URL's reported to it by the studios, but this, in my view, leads to the most serious defect in the order: it relies entirely on the good faith and judgment of the studios. There is no sanction for mis-reporting of websites. Since there is no requirement to publish the list of sites supplied to BT or to notify site owners that they have been placed on the list, it may be difficult to ensure that the studios act fairly and properly.

BT did try to obtain what is known as a cross-undertaking or an indemnity from the studios which would have compensated BT for any loss it suffered as a result of any mistakes made by the studios. The judge rejected that request on the basis that, as he decided, BT could not be liable for damages (eg by being sued by its customers) because it was acting under a court order. That will no doubt be a useful decision for ISP's and web service providers in other situations, but it did mean there was no basis for imposing any sanction on the studios for supplying incorrect sites in its list.

There was some argument as to how precisely the list should be described. In order to ensure that it would be difficult to circumvent the order, the judge decided that the order would apply to not only the newzbin website itself but also to "any other IP address or URL whose sole or predominant purpose is to enable or facilitate access to the Newzbin2 website". Here we see one of the weaknesses of section 97A. It gives the High Court the power to grant an injunction but it fails completely to say what kind of an injunction that might be. In particular it does not say that the injunction should be restricted to preventing access to sites where copyright is being infringed (like Newzbin). I am therefore concerned about whether the combination of the wording of the order and lack of sanction on studios may cause problems at a later date.

The other significant issue was costs. While costs (which lawyers get very excited about) may not seem as interesting as arguments about what should be blocked and how, costs are often as expensive to a party as the consequences of losing (or winning) a claim. Costs are a big deal. One positive outcome of the decision is that BT was entitled to be paid its legal costs for the first part of the claim up to 16 December 2010 - in other words the costs that would have to be incurred to obtain a court order. In the future ISP's can be reasonably confident that they can demand a court order before instituting website blocking and not expect to have to pay the costs of that order. The judge found that BT should pay the costs of the contested part of the proceedings, but that each party would bear its own costs for the decision about the final order.

In conclusion, I have two points to make: first, it is now clear that copyright owners are perfectly able to obtain quite favourable court orders to block websites, so that there was really no need for the Digital Economy Act 2010 to introduce more website blocking provisions when the existing ones (in section 97A) had not been properly tried out. Second, other cases may not work out the same way as this one. For example TalkTalk do not run Cleanfeed. One expects that the argument (and subsequent order) in a case against TalkTalk might be a little different for that reason. We will see.


Anonymous said...

On the point of Deep Packet Inspection, technically, I think they are. para 6 of the ruling states " the Studios now accept that the order should refer to IP address re-routing and not IP address blocking"

I read from this that matching IP addresses are "shunted" (routed) through Cleanfeed. It then seems from the ruling that additional URL matching must be done (even if this is domain root-level URL), since the judge wrote: "It appears that IP address blocking could lead to "overblocking" of sites or pages that ought not to be blocked"

URL matching needs DPI, although not of the "content matching" variety. Cleanfeed must reconstitute Internet Protocol packets in order to read the URL from the HTTP header. No mention is made of what should happen if Newzbin move to HTTPS.

These questions are pertinent because of paras 10-12, which basically mean any website whose "predominant" purpose is circumventing the block can itself be blocked. If such sites spring up on shared hosting services, obviously one would not want the whole host to be blocked.

I noted in my own post on the subject that I found no mention of how such additional "Other IP addresses and URLs" can be removed from the blocking system!

Francis Davey said...

James, you are quite right, the Cleanfeed system does require deep packet inspection (otherwise you can't see the URL's of course), but BT don't need to do any analysis of packets beyond what they already do with the Cleanfeed system with its fake proxy system. Reading Richard Clayton's analysis of it would clarify any uncertainties about it.

One imagines all too easy to circumvent.

Unknown said...

The funny thing is that you can circumvent this URL block with a free VPN service like Tunnel Bear. It's laughably easy.

You've probably already seen this YouTube video?