British actor Stephen Fry has given a global highlight to a protest against a contentious New Zealand internet law due to come into effect next week.
Fry used the international and increasingly powerful Twitter social network to attack the New Zealand law and support the Internet BlackOut protest.
Fry is the global heavyweight of Twitter, with 200,000 active followers – more than any other, including US president Barack Obama.
He has blacked out his Twitter photo avatar and changed his biography to read:
"I'm blacked out: Stand up against "Guilt Upon Accusation" for New Zealand http://creativefreedom.org.nz/blackout.html.”
The law at the centre of the furor is Section 92a, a proposed amendment to the country's copyright law, due to come into force on February 28th.
The law instructs internet service providers that they "must adopt and reasonably implement a policy that provides for termination" of accounts used by anyone deemed a "repeat infringer" – regardless of whether the person has been convicted of a crime or not.
The new law would mean internet service providers would have to take on the role of “gatekeeper”, blocking online access to anyone accused of flouting copyright laws and illegally downloading films and music.
The law says ISPs – such as Telecom and Vodafone - must disconnect internet service to anyone "repeatedly accused" of accessing copyrighted material online.
The BlackOut protest is the brainchild of a Kiwi organization called the Creative Freedom Foundation which is urging users to replace their avatars on all internet sites with a black box to illustrate what the internet could look like following the law change.
Blacked out boxes have been appearing on social networking websites such as Twitter, Facebook, My Space and Bebo.
The protest is drawing international attention beyond Fry.
British newspaper The Guardian today ran a story discussing the mysterious “blacked out” boxes.
“It turns out that this isn't the result of a malicious hacker or even a random technical fault. Nor have these icons and photos been whisked away by aliens in some sort of avatar-snatching heist. Instead the so-called "internet blackout" is part of a political protest against a law that has outraged internet campaigners in New Zealand.”
Internet NZ executive director Keith Davidson earlier told The Dominion Post the new law would mean Internet Service Providers would play the role of "judge, jury and executioner", and the law would negate the assumption that users were innocent until proven guilty.
He said he believed an alternative model used in Canada and Japan by which people who believed their copyright was being infringed were put in touch with the alleged perpetrator, would provide a better solution.
"Internet service providers shouldn't step in and become middlemen. We are a democracy ... it goes against having an open and uncapturable internet."
Telecom, Vodafone and TelstraClear also spoke out against the proposed law to The Dominion Post late last month.
Vodafone spokeswoman Alison Sykora said: "We believe the Government needs to re-examine this as it would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, to enforce."
TelstraClear spokesman Mathew Bolland called the legislation appalling and said it appeared to have gone through "in the dead of the night" despite the commerce select committee deleting the controversial section last year.
"We won't break the law, but we won't be hammering our customers."
Telecom spokesman Mark Watts said the company did not believe section 92 in its present form was the best solution.
"It should not fall to ISPs to monitor our customers' behaviour or decide whether infringement has occurred."
Communications and Information Technology Minister Steven Joyce acknowledged concerns about the law's implementation, but stopped short of saying it would be reviewed.
"We will keep a close eye on how the new law works in practice. We are prepared to look at further changes if they prove necessary."