Draconian measures are not the answer

Claims that the European Parliament is about to open the door to Chinese-style internet censorship are exaggerated and undermine the credibility of critics of proposals that are nonetheless dangerous.

A more sober assessment of the so-called “torpedo amendments” to the forthcoming telecommunications directive is that they do threaten some aspects of internet usage but Brussels is not about to turn into Beijing.

Conservative MEP Malcolm Habour’s proposals would enable internet service providers to vary “quality of service”, thereby opening the door to discriminatory distribution and giving priority to certain traffic.

Harbour insists that he supported “net neutrality”, but this did not convince Green and Socialist MEPs or internet-user organisations that question his interpretation of the principle whereby all content delivered over the internet is treated equally in terms of distribution.

Behind all this is the powerful lobby of “Big Content”, which wants to stop piracy of films, music and television programmes, above all via P2P file-sharing networks.

Cutting off access to P2P sites or massively slowing down access speeds (“throttling”), is one approach, the “graduated response” – otherwise known as “three strikes and you’re out” is another.

But looking at the issue from a free-market perspective, the P2P file-sharing sites are doing what the big corporations always promise – giving the customer what he wants at the price he is prepared to pay. The only problem is that the goods provided are not owned by the provider.

A long-term solution may lie less in draconian regulation and more in intelligent commercial action. Apple’s iTunes has shown that some consumers can be drawn away from illicit downloads if legitimate access to music is provided at a low price. A more radical approach was tried in the summer by music group Radiohead, which released its latest album online on a “pay what you want” basis. Users could pay a lot, a little or nothing.

This could prove a good solution across the audiovisual and music industries. Apart from anything else, Big Content would get a pretty clear idea of how people really value its products.

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