Legislators resume debate on the controversial copyright (amendment) bill today.
Despite a threatened filibuster by pan-democrats, the measure could pass muster with the backing of pro-establishment lawmakers who dominate the Legislative Council.
The draft bill does offer extra protection for copyright owners, especially those who hold copyright for TV and movie productions, because it bans unauthorized set-top units.
But a new provision on distribution of copyrighted material on the internet is making many people wary.
They are concerned that it might put independent online video makers or songwriters who produce satire or derivatives at risk of legal action.
Many people are having reservations about the proposed legislation because it is too vague and the potential for abuse by the authorities is enormous.
More importantly, it has great implications for free speech online.
The internet provides an open platform for people from all walks of life to exchange views and information freely.
Online freedom of speech, a relatively new civil rights concept, is just as important to the average individual as freedom of expression in the physical world and freedom of assembly, both of which we take for granted in daily life.
Free online discussion can often draw public attention to specific issues and encourage social debate in a way that could influence government policy.
In the past, the social agenda was often dominated by the media but in the internet era, the average individual can raise social issues, call for public action or bring about social change.
The government is once again co-opting the pro-establishment camp to try to push a piece of controversial and unpopular legislation through Legco despite growing public opposition.
Although the administration insists that it has made substantial amendments to guarantee freedom of expression on the internet, such as waiving criminal and civil liabilities for the use of copyrighted material online for certain specified purposes, these exemptions don’t go far enough.
(The exemptions purport to cover parody and satire, current affairs commentary, quotations and education-related content.)
The government should postpone the legislation and relaunch a public consultation.
In the meantime, officials should also reexamine some of the suggestions from the arts and culture sector.
These include an “open exemption” clause under which all derivative works enjoy protection from civil and criminal liability as long as they are not used for commercial or profit-making purposes.
Freedom of expression is among our core values.
That is the reason the draft legislation is stirring such passions.
Any attempt to press ahead with the law regardless of public opposition is bound to provoke a backlash and the implications could be far-reaching.
The government, as the saying goes, might win the battle but it will lose the war.
This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on Dec. 8
Translation by Alan Lee
[Chinese version 中文版]
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