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Tragic Irony: The Lost Opportunity In Blocking Newzbin

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"I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

Voltaire's famous quote attacking censorship is well known, but would you believe it was once preached by the RIAA? "The Founding Fathers knew what they were doing," it argued. "They believed in the power of ideas and debate, not censorship… In the world of music, the censorship effort repeats itself virtually every generation. Music is an especially easy target when legislators are looking for cultural scapegoats. In the tempest of the times, it’s easy to condemn that which shocks."

These extracts come from an article published on the RIAA's website in 2002. Unsurprisingly it has since been deleted, but The Wayback Machine keeps a copy which gives remarkable and damning insight into how the attitude of copyright holders has since changed.

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This week the u-turn was complete. Under pressure from the Motion Picture Association (MPA), the RIAA's Hollywood cousin, the English High Court ruled British Telecom must block access to Newzbin 2 – a pre-eminent Usenet aggregation site. It was achieved under section 97A of the Copyright Act and in doing so swept away key safeguards. It ruled ISPs are not actually 'service providers', that unlike Royal Mail they are not merely a conduit and they have a duty to monitor users surfing to enforce censorship where appropriate.

"[BT] knows that the users of Newzbin 2 include BT subscribers, and it knows those users use its service to receive infringing copies of copyright works made available to them by Newzbin 2," concluded Mr Justice Arnold. BT accepted the verdict and the MPAA is expected to use the landmark decision to now pressure smaller ISPs and draw up a long list of sites. Presumably that would include Newzbin 3 (v3.newzbin.com), which has been in service for well over a year.

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"Almost every ‘infringing’ search result found on Newzbin2 can be had from Google, we just do it much much better," said Newzbin in a blog post which claims it was not invited to attend the case. It also promised to break any blocking technology BT imposed. "[Copyright holders] regard anything new as a threat, when it always eventually turns out to be their greatest and most profitable opportunity: the VCR, DVD, CD, cassette tape, pianola-roll, Caxton printing press etc." Its argument has unnerving similarities to the now deleted proclamations of the RIAA.

The ruling has ignited furious debate on age old arguments: theft verses infringement, indexing verses hosting and censorship verses freedom of information. More tragically, however, both sides are missing a fundamentally important point: Newzbin reaffirms the future of the entertainment industry…

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