Why we went to the United Nations to protect digital consumers

45 Wired bookCI believes that the UN Guidelines for Consumer Protection have much potential to help restore the balance between the interests of consumers and copyright holders that has been upset with the introduction of digital rights management digital rights management (DRM) systems, descriptively known as ‘digital locks.’

Digital locks stop consumers from copying and sharing, even for ‘fair use’ or ‘fair dealing’ purposes. Should they break those locks in order to gain access, or should they share the work more widely than the copyright owner says they ought, then they face a crushing burden of civil damages, and the prospect of criminal penalties.

In some cases, the restrictions imposed by content owners push consumers too far, and they fight back. The best recent example of this occurred when last month, Microsoft was forced to back down on its plans for the upcoming Xbox One console, which would restrict gamers from selling their old games, and require them to connect their consoles to the Internet every day in order to play.

Whilst public and commercial pressure was enough to force a backdown in this instance, at other times, courts or regulators have had to step in to force change. And before courts or regulators can act, strong laws need to be in place to restrain technology companies from abusing consumer rights. With the rapid advancement of technology therefore comes the need for law reform at the national level, and sometimes even at the global level, to improve protection for digital consumers.

This is why we turned to the UN Guidelines, as an influential, though non-binding instrument at the global level, that sets high standards for national best practices in consumer protection and the advancement of consumer rights. Last updated in 1999, the Guidelines don't yet offer adequate guidance for the protection of digital consumers, and our proposed amendments will help address that deficit.

It will not be easy to push our amendments through – there are certain countries (most notably a certain world superpower) that have already signalled their opposition. Yet change is possible. Last month, for the first time ever, a new global instrument was agreed by the World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO) that would allow blind and visually impaired consumers to break digital locks in certain cases in order to produce accessible copies of works, where the publishers had failed to do so.

Our objective in advocating for these amendments is not to prevent copyright owners from enforcing their rights, since those rights, properly balanced with the rights of consumers, are legitimate. But as a form of government-sanctioned monopoly, they also carry an inherent potential for abuse. So whilst we don't oppose copyright as an institution, the consumer movement does call for the regulation of the abuses that it gives rise to, such as the use of digital locks to prevent consumers from exercising their fair use or fair dealing rights, and the insidious move from an ‘ownership’ to a ‘rental’ model of content distribution, with correspondingly fewer consumer rights.

Read more in "DRM, the rights of the consumer ... and the UN" at Digital News Asia.

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