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© RIA Novosti. Aleksandr Utkin

Anti-piracy: Shooting cannons at mosquitoes

by Kristen Blyth at 24/06/2013 14:11

There's a Chinese proverb, widely attributed to Confucius, which says "Don't use a cannon to kill a mosquito." The meaning is simple: use the right tools for the job. Don't go overboard, or else you'll be ineffective.

It may be that members of the Russian State Duma have never read Confucius, because using cannons to kill mosquitoes is just the technique the Russian parliament is proposing to combat Internet piracy.

On Friday, the Duma fast-tracked approval for a bill intended to crack down on illegal online distribution of copyrighted content in Russia. The law would impose a legal mechanism to pre-block websites suspected of hosting illegal copies of copyrighted material until the case can be reviewed in court.

The anti-piracy bill must be approved by the Federation Council and then President Vladimir Putin before it becomes law. Still, it's already been battered by a storm of criticism - not just from web users who fear their streaming and downloading activities may be hampered, but also from industry experts who've called out the law for its openness to abuse and lack of thoughtful consideration.

"It's raw, raw, raw," Denis Voevodin, an intellectual property lawyer at the Moscow office of international law firm Dentons, told The Moscow News about the proposal after its first reading.

Technical and procedural problems aside, the anti-piracy bill contains a more fundamental flaw, critics say: it simply misses the point.

The proposal would allow copyright holders to file a complaint with the Moscow City Court against websites hosting or linking to copyright-infringing content.

The court will establish a deadline (within 15 days) for the claimant to file a formal suit, and will notify the site of the alleged violation. The site must then remove the material (in advance, even though no formal suit has been filed) within three days. Otherwise, the court can invoke "interim measures" and block the entire IP address of the site until the case is reviewed.

The law will target only providers of illegal content, not downloaders, and will apply only to movies, TV shows, and video productions. Music won't count, thanks to an amendment added by Just Russia Duma Deputy Alexei Mitrofanov. Music is much cheaper to create than movies, Mitrofanov said at an expert discussion in June on electronic democracy, so it doesn't fall into the same category.

If passed, the anti-piracy law will go into force on August 1. Criticism - coming even from web giants like Google, Yandex, and Mail.ru - has meanwhile been overwhelming and unequivocal.

Russian search engine Yandex published a statement on its website listing its grievances with the bill after its first reading, including a long list of suggested amendments.

"Internet companies, once again, have not had the opportunity to participate in the creation of this bill," Yandex wrote. "The bill in its current form is technically unrealizable and potentially dangerous. It allows the quick, cheap closure of any arbitrary internet resource."

One problem, Yandex noted, is that a plaintiff isn't required to provide a URL in the petition. Without an exact location, it may be difficult or impossible for a host site to locate supposed pirated material within three days. If it fails to find and remove that content in time, the entire site's IP address can be blocked until the court can review the case - a measure that's been attacked as overkill, and highly open to abuse.

"[This problem] is mostly about commercial censorship," Voevodin told The Moscow News. "If you want to shut down your competitor, you can use the procedure to do it, and it will cause harm to the competitor's business."

There's nothing in the bill to prevent Internet companies from repeatedly filing copyright complaints against their competitors, noted the Russian Association for Electronic Communications.

"The copyright holder has the opportunity not only to sue, but to appeal every 15 days for the application of new interim measures, and [the law] establishes no responsibility for such behavior," the association said in an official report posted to its website in June.

The anti-piracy bill does, at least, allow the defendant to sue for losses if the court rules in its favor or if the plaintiff ends up never filing a formal suit.

Three clicks

Even if the law is used as intended, its method is simply ineffective, said Stanislav Shakirov, the vice-chairman of the unregistered Pirate Party of Russia.

"Going to a site like anonymouse.org makes it easy to open any blocked link," Shakirov told The Moscow News.

The Pirate Party of Russia is a political movement, based off a similar organization in Sweden, which campaigns against intellectual property rights. The group specializes in circumventing internet censorship, and has compiled a whole list of methods, called RubBlackList, detailing how to access blocked websites.

"With [anonymouse] you can open the movie or TV show you want not with one click, but with three," Shakirov said. "I can't call that a victory over piracy."

If passed, he concluded, the law will do little to truly change the face of Internet piracy: web users will always find ways to get the information they want.

Think outside the box

Instead of targeting individual pirates, intellectual property experts say that the industry should be more creative in finding ways to battle online piracy.

"Look at ten years ago, when Apple revolutionized the media market with a completely new business model [pay-per-song]," Severin de Wit, a lawyer with the international Intellectual Property Expert Group, told The Moscow News. "It shook the industry to think more out-of-the-box, to come up with a basic model whereby people can buy material for reasonable prices online."

According to de Wit, people should be educated that paying for content is better than stealing it, and developing a legal online micro-payment system would be a good first step in promoting that perspective.

Unfortunately, the film business has lagged behind the music industry in creating a business model where consumers can cheaply buy online access to movies and TV shows. This drag is especially acute in Russia, where use of credit cards has only very recently started to gain popularity.

"In Russia, [people mainly] use cash," Voevodin said. "In order to download something legally, you need to have a credit card and a system of using it. If there's an established system and it's easy to do, I don't think people will be risking being fined for a dollar or two."

The micro-payment idea is not only a so-called expert opinion. It's also endorsed by people who oppose intellectual property rights in general, such as the Pirate Party of Russia.

"If copyright holders really want to earn money for their products, they need to not fight with pirated sites, but develop an electronic payment system in Russia instead," Shakirov said. "They need to create convenient services, something like NetFlix.com."

NetFlix has earned massive success by allowing customers to pay a small monthly fee for DVD rentals and online movie streaming.

Read other articles of the print issue "The Moscow News #24"
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