It’s fast becoming clear that using an anonymous IP address is going to be vital if you want to protect yourself, not only from being wrongly prosecuted by your own country’s vague laws concerning online content, but also the laws from other countries.
You may already know that the law is full of grey areas when it comes to accessing online content. Different countries have various laws concerning file sharing, what content is deemed illegal to possess, and what actually counts as ‘possession’ of content.
This can be problematic when it comes to assessing what you can and can’t view online. For instance, last year a law was passed in the UK concerning ‘extreme pornographic content’. However the law was very fuzzy when it came to defining what “extreme pornography” actually is. This has since led to some bizarre prosecutions. One of the most famous is the case of Andrew Holland, who downloaded a video clip of a women apparently having sex with an animated tiger. After the police discovered the clip on his PC, Holland was promptly arrested, prevented from contacting his daughter, and put on trial.
However, half-way through the trial the police turned up the volume on the ‘illegal’ clip and discovered that the talking tiger was making jokes about Frosties - a popular breakfast cereal that features a tiger mascot. The clip was therefore deemed unrealistic and satirical, rather than pornographic, and Holland – who always claimed the clip was sent to him as a joke – had the charge against him dropped.
Given the UK’s vague laws surrounding how IP addresses can be monitored by law enforcement officials, Holland’s case should set alarm bells ringing. The only thing that stands between ‘extreme pornography’ and legitimate satire, seems to be the perspective of a few police officers. But this issue is complicated even further when you consider the news that’s recently dominated headlines concerning the file-sharing sites Mega Upload and TV Shack.
The owners of both Mega Upload and TV Shack are being tried for extradition to the United States for allegedly facilitating copyright theft. The debate over file sharing is an emotive one, and both pro-file sharing and anti-file sharing camps make valid arguments, but the real issue is how US law is being used to prosecute individuals who are technically outside of its jurisdiction.
Take TV Shack’s owner, Richard O’Dwyer. Many UK law experts believe that O’Dwyer, who was 19 when he set up TV Shack, did not break any UK laws by linking to other sites that hosted copyrighted content. Because O’Dwyer would likely be found innocent in a UK court, copyright owners want him extradited to the US, where a conviction and long jail sentence would be likely. It looks like the copyright owners are now getting their way. Last week O’Dwyer lost an appeal in UK courts to prevent his extradition.
It’s only going to get worse…
This brings us to the much maligned pieces of legislation, SOPA and PIPA. One of focuses of the Stop Online Piracy Act was to make it even easier for the US entertainment industry to pursue and extradite individuals who they deem are guilty of sharing copyrighted material. SOPA now looks unlikely to pass. But it’s worth paying attention to the reasons why SOPA hit the rocks. The senators who withdrew their support for the bill were mainly concerned with the effect it would have on the US economy, not on the injustice of forcing US law onto non-US citizens.
SOPA may be defeated, but it’s almost certain that copyright hawks are already drafting another bill that aims to give as much power as possible to those who want to prevent file sharing no matter where it takes place. As Andrew Holland’s case demonstrated, users already have to be wary of their own country’s fuzzy laws concerning what they can access on the internet. However, they may soon have to contend with the laws of an entirely different country. Will this stop at copyrighted material? Or will individuals be subject to foreign laws on other types of content that they access online? It won’t be long before we find out.