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U.K. to repeal 'SOPA-like' site-blocking

The U.K. government is to repeal two sections of a key antipiracy law that would have allowed it to block Web sites by court order, after copyright holders beat them to it.

The U.K. government has said it is to abandon legislative plans to block copyright-infringing Web sites -- proposals reminiscent of the draft Stop Online Piracy Act ("SOPA") bill put before the U.S. House of Representatives late last year.

Does that mean an end to site blocking? Of course not. The courts just don't need the extra helping hand to make it happen any more.

Earlier this week, the U.K. Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), said the government will seek to remove two crucial sections of the Digital Economy Act that would have allowed it to impose Web site blocking at the ISP level.

According to DCMS, the government department in charge of the Digital Economy Act, which was passed in 2010 and aims to curb online piracy, the government will seek to repeal sections 17 and 18 of the law.

The two sections are arguably the most controversial elements of the act. Section 17 allows the government to seek a court order against "any location on the Internet" deemed to facilitate or actively infringe copyright, while section 18 sets out the approvals process the government must go through to get such orders granted.

The decision to seek the repeal of the two sections follows a report in May 2011 by Ofcom, the U.K.'s communications regulator, which concluded that the measures would not work in practice.

"We do not think that sections 17 and 18 of the Act would meet the requirements of the copyright owners," the report said.

It said using the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 through the courts was a faster and more efficient way to get sites blocked.

The government said a few months later that it "would not bring forward the site-blocking provisions."

A DCMS spokesperson said the measures set out under sections 17 and 18 were only "reserve powers," and following its decision last year to not take the site-blocking provisions forward, it sought to remove the "unnecessary legislation" from the law.

The government department declined to give a time frame for the removal of the two sections from the act, but said it would be done at the "earliest opportunity."

So why the change of heart? With the government taking so long to enact the provisions of the law -- the code setting out how they would work in practice is still in draft form nearly two years after the law was first passed -- copyright holders took a test case to court, and now no longer have need of the measures.

The first test case was brought a little under a year ago by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) on behalf of six U.S. film studios. The MPAA wanted to force BT, the largest broadband provider in the U.K., to block access to file-sharing site Newzbin2.

The MPAA prevailed in the case, successfully arguing under section 97A of the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988, that an injunction should be brought forcing the ISP to block access to the site.

Once the legal precedent was set, for copyright holders it was a case of rinse and repeat with Sky Broadband next to receive a Newsbin2 blocking order.

Subsequently, the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the U.K.'s record industry's trade association, successfully sought an injunction against The Pirate Bay a few months later, forcing six of the U.K.'s largest broadband providers to block customer access to the site.

This led to more than 92 percent of the U.K.'s broadband connections unable to access the Magnet-links sharing site. Naturally, many circumvented the blocks immediately with the help of The Pirate Bay itself and various proxy websites.