Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Closing Down? Illegal downloading in Spain

I have a confession to make. I have never illegally downloaded a movie or a song from the internet.

Boy, you don't know how it feels to get this off my chest. I have been living with the shame of being a download-denier for years. I know that my 'fessing up could mean my being shunned by friends or family, but this is a cross I have to bear.

You have to ask why I have been a denier. In Spain of all places. Spain which is the most lax country in the European Union when it comes to tackling internet piracy. It is a haven for the dodgy downloader and also, therefore, for download "re-sellers". And these are not just the lookies. So lax is Spain and so high is the level of downloading by Spanish users that the country has been put on a blacklist by the US Congress. Production companies are wary about distributing original material in Spain.

Some years ago, Singapore sought to legitimise itself in the eyes of the international community by getting to grips with what was rampant piracy and counterfeiting. It was of a different type - fake Rolex, Gucci, Lacoste and so on. There were shops that taxi-drivers would take you to. The windows were papered over. Don't get me wrong, I don't claim never to have obtained pirated goods. The Lacoste t-shirts from Singapore made excellent Christmas presents. The day after I'd been to one shop, the front page of the local equivalent of "The Bulletin" ran with the story of a police raid. On that very shop. I must have missed it by moments.

Singapore did legitimise itself. Spain has been facing similar demands to get its act straight when it comes to downloading. Which is why for much of this year the passage of the so-called "Sinde" law has been staggering through parliament.

Named after the culture minister, Ángeles González-Sinde, the law was tagged onto a much more wide-ranging one, that of the "sustainable economy". This alone created confusion, a not uncommon facet of Spanish law-making. Months after it was meant to have been enacted, Sinde's law has just reached its final parliamentary stages in the Spanish Congress.

The law has not looked to emulate the route in the UK, that of cutting off the internet connections of habitual illegal downloaders and file-sharers. Quite right, too. The UK's solution is absurd. Instead, Spain would block or close down websites which offer illegal film and music downloads and free sports programmes that would otherwise be on subscription. Any decision to do so would still be subject to authorisation by a commission for intellectual property.

Getting to a vote has been a tortuous process as it has involved negotiations by the PSOE ruling administration with the multitude of parties which exist in parliament, the Catalonian CiU and the Basque PNV having been particularly crucial. There has been a reluctance to support the measure, and this stems, one has to presume, from what is a strong desire not to limit freedom of information. There has also been the added confusion of elements of the sustainable economy law that have nothing to do with the downloading element and which have been used as bargaining tools. You wonder why the Sinde law couldn't have been dealt with separately.

The law has also attracted the mavericks of cyberspace. Websites for the PSOE, Congress and others have been attacked in the days and hours leading up to the vote. The Anonymous group, which has been behind attacks on PayPal and Visa in light of the WikiLeaks furore, has been prominent in activating the Spanish attacks.

The point about the Sinde law, other than any notion of limiting freedom of information, is that it would probably have very little effect, especially for those internet users who understand a bit about file-sharing. Furthermore, closing websites down does not mean that new ones might not emerge, and recourse to a commission on intellectual property opens up the field to all manner of potential legal challenges by websites. The law could actually be a minefield.

And then there is the question as to whether it is sensible to legislate at all, which brings into play the whole issue as to what the internet stands for as well as the costs of trying to prevent piracy. In a way it's a bit like the war on drugs. Vast amounts of money and resources go into fighting drugs, but to what end? The scale of downloading and sharing in Spain is enormous - one in three users is said to regularly share copyrighted material - and this despite the fact that, in the Balearics as an example, the number of homes with internet connections isn't as widespread as you might think; only 56% of homes in the Balearics have one.

The other way of looking at this is that downloading, illegal or not, could be set to become even more enormous. For the meantime though, it's carry on downloading - illegally. Why? Because the passing of Sinde's law has failed. By two votes. All the horse-trading and it still couldn't be passed. You never know, maybe I'll join the rest and download with impunity. Until, that is, the Senate tries to ratify it in January, but don't bank on this.

Any comments to please.

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