With the Legislative Council set to resume discussion on the Copyright (Amendment) Bill 2014 next week, issues surrounding online freedoms will again take centerstage in Hong Kong.
The government claims the proposed law will strike a balance between the interests of the owners of copyrighted materials and their derivative use by Internet users, but the assurances haven’t been entirely convincing.
There are worries that the bill could restrict freedom of expression online as copyright provisions could be used to block derivative content deemed sensitive or politically inconvenient to Beijing.
Also, netizens could face harassment from copyright owners despite various kinds of exemptions being granted on creation of works that take reference to published material.
Some commentators and activists have, in fact, described the new copyright ordinance as “Article 23 on the Internet”, referring to Article 23 of the Basic Law that requires Hong Kong to enact laws to protect China’s national security interests.
The worries are understandable given the online habits nowadays in the social media age.
It is quite common to see netizens produce derivative works based on copyrighted content and express their creativity by taking reference to published text or images.
For example, use of a copyrighted photo to illustrate a point, fitting new lyrics to an old song or putting a new script to a video program.
If the law is passed in its current form, it could for instance cause serious problems for “TV Most”, a young internet video media platform where uploaded creative works are mostly a take-off from copyrighted content.
Its “Ging Cook Gum Cook” music program, which takes reference to the name of a music show on TVB’s Jade channel, could especially be in danger of breaching the new law as the program fills in new lyrics on well-known Cantopop songs in Hong Kong.
Under the government’s proposed law, such derivative creative works will be at risk of copyright infringement, as authorities have refused to grant an open-ended exemption on user-generated content.
In the past two decades, Internet users across the world have established an online culture which is completely different from the traditional world.
People express their creativity by using existing materials.
While the government is justified in seeking to protect the rights of copyright holders, an overreach will stifle netizens’ ability to express themselves freely and give vent to their creativity.
Sensing an opportunity, some traditional media outlets have been urging the government to cover online sharing of copyrighted content, including sharing of links on the Internet, under the new law.
TVB, for instance, has said that it wants stricter rules in relation to sharing of video links. Any shared content must bear a disclaimer that it is not copyright protected, the TV station argued.
As it will it be difficult for the ordinary Internet user to determine which content is protected by copyright and which is not, what TVB has effectively suggested is a ban on all sharing activities of video content.
TVB, which is Hong Kong’s largest free-to-air broadcaster, also called for a ban on platforms distributing illegal sharing links.
The suggestion goes against the principle of technology neutrality and could also pose the risk of blocking Internet users from accessing even the legal online file transfer platforms.
Fortunately, the government has rejected the TVB suggestion, citing the sensitivity of blocking of all sharing activities based on the users’ acknowledgment of copyrighted content.
But that doesn’t mean the government will provide a free online environment to Internet users.
The administration has put forward a suggestion for judiciary-backed blocking of websites if a special situation arises. Under the proposal, copyright owners or the government can apply for court order to block a specific internet website from being browsed within Hong Kong.
The danger lies in the potential misuse of the law to curb the freedom of expression and privacy of communication of Hong Kong people.
Under Article 30 of the Basic Law says “the freedom and privacy of communication of Hong Kong residents shall be protected by law. No department or individual may, on any grounds, infringe upon the freedom and privacy of communication of residents except that the relevant authorities may inspect communication in accordance with legal procedures to meet the needs of public security or of investigation into criminal offences.”
That could be a powerful tool for the government to block inconvenient content. Pro-Beijing loyalists could make use of “judiciary blocking” to stop Hong Kong people from browsing information that Beijing doesn’t like, using the pretext of copyright protection.
In the worst-case scenario, Hong Kong could have its own “Great Firewall”, with people’s online choices and freedoms restricted as is the case with their brethren across the border.
We are exaggerating a bit here, but the concerns are very real.
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