Science & Technology

WIPO’s piracy blacklist is flawed

Why is the UN body putting a stamp of approval on a system that is patently unjust and dangerous

 
By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Wednesday 14 August 2019
Tech experts worry over the ways such inherently flawed lists are compiled and how these are utilised. Photo: Getty Images
Tech experts worry over the ways such inherently flawed lists are compiled and how these are utilised. Photo: Getty Images Tech experts worry over the ways such inherently flawed lists are compiled and how these are utilised. Photo: Getty Images

Building respect for Intellectual Property Database has a solid ring to it. As a project of the World Intellectual Property Organisation or WIPO, a UN body, the BRIP Database as it is called, offers the prospect of cleaning up online piracy globally by putting together a giant blacklist of websites that infringe copyright. The project is based on “follow-the-money” approach to copyright infringement which aims to choke the flow of money to illegal website operators.

This approach has been tried by industry groups and by various agencies in different countries but with mixed results. So although one might believe WIPO’s initiative is a good way of cleansing the Internet of pirate websites by denying them advertising, experience shows that blacklists and “follow-the-money” projects are fraught with problems. WIPO itself notes that “online advertising is complex and hard to control” but appears to think it has the solution.

Apart from the scepticism over how databases help in combating online piracy, tech experts worry over the ways such inherently flawed lists are compiled and how these are utilised.

WIPO describes its BRIP Database as “a secure, access-controlled online platform, to which authorised agencies in WIPO member-states may upload lists of websites which deliberately facilitate the infringement of copyright”. Only authorised players in the advertising industry are permitted to use the database.

Not so simple, warn the critics, going by what has happened in the past. In 2011, advertising giant GroupM, a part of marketing WPP conglomerate, brought out a huge list of sites that it said were pirate sites. The entries were bizarre, as TorrentFreak discovered when it got hold of the list.

Among the websites on the list were Internet Archive — which is a US-based non-profit digital library with the stated mission of providing universal access to all knowledge, the popular web video site, Vimeo — which can by no means be termed a pirate site — and SoundCloud — which is widely used by musicians to promote their own music.

In short, the list showed not just lack of due process in the way it was compiled but clear signs of bias. GroupM said those who analysed the list had selected websites the agency did not approve of even though these were not in any way involved in piracy.

WIPO’s blacklist raises the same concerns. It is secret, open only to “authorised contributors” and “authorised users from the advertising sector”. Critics say there is no process to ensure the sites on the list are actually engaged in ongoing infringement and no clarity on how “authorised contributors” are vetted and approved.

Neither are the sites notified of their blacklisting nor is there any provision for allowing any appeals against it.

To all such concerns, WIPO maintains that the BRIP Database platform is merely a central repository for national authorities, such as Agcom in Italy, Hadopi of France and Russia’s Roskoomnadzor.

These agencies, unfortunately, have a reputation for wrongly claiming infringement and, according to some IP experts, are notorious for declaring even items not under their jurisdiction as guilty of piracy. The overarching question: why is WIPO putting the UN stamp of approval on a system that is patently flawed, unjust and dangerous?

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's print edition dated August 1-15, 2019)

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