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Brit ISPs shift toward rapid pirate website blocking

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Exclusive Leading UK ISPs are now privately agreed on the principle of restricting access to websites in response to hastily obtained court orders, according to sources close to discussions that took place in Westminster this week. The shift follows the landmark Newzbin2 ruling in July, which affirmed the responsibility ISPs have to enforce copyright laws.

However, the structure and processes acceptable to both ISPs and creative industries have yet to be tabled, and significant concerns remain in the Internet industry over legal issues and costs.

Rights-holders reacted a little more positively, pointing to the acknowledgement of greater responsibility, lower costs and speedier access to justice than offered by current legal processes. Although one source was cautious:

"Don't expect a signing ceremony or even a public announcement, it's going to be more of a voluntary solution through accretion," he told us.

The change of heart was evident at the latest in a series of regular industry discussions chaired by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey on Monday this week, according to multiple sources familiar with the discussions. It's the latest in a series of meetings designed to produce a self-regulatory substitute for the Digital Economy Act's Section 17 and 18 web-blocking powers. The government has said it won't implement these, but wants ISPs and creative industries to devise a replacement acceptable to both. This was the first meeting since June, and also the first since the Newzbin2 ruling.

June saw a voluntary plan floated (and leaked), which saw strong opposition in BT, the defendant in the Newzbin2 case. This has now been sidelined. Instead, ISPs will still demand a court order but work on an expedited process. Fighting Newzbin2 cost Hollywood studios an estimated £1m and took 18 months – and that's the heart of the dispute. Copyright enforcement options today are expensive and impractical. Reports that ISPs will be asked to turn around court orders in an hour, however, are inaccurate, according to multiple insiders. But ISPs will respond to court orders that have been processed more quickly.

"ISPs have had to acknowledge that being a mere conduit is not an absolute defence," said one industry representative.

While conceding the main issue, ISPs privately point to several positives for service providers: they'll respond to court orders on a per-site basis, rather than lists of sites, and believe fewer pirate sites will be requested by rights-holders.

Industry association ISPA told us it was concerned about the costs of setting up the blocking solutions on smaller ISPs.

That leaves much of the detail to be decided. One is the nature of the "evidence test" a court will need to block access.

And at least two sources on different sides of the talks agree, glumly, that we may see more litigation before a voluntary self-regulation concord takes effect.

Vaizey held a second meeting on the subject of site-blocking on Tuesday, an open meeting attended by anti-copyright groups including The Pirate Party and the Open Rights Group, and blogger activists.

Yet there's little mistaking the direction talks are taking. By opposing every single copyright enforcement measure ever proposed – and there have been some quite insane proposals – activists have only accelerated the marginalisation of what may be quite rational objections.

Bootnote

One objection raised was that small UK web businesses "would need weekend cover" under a less Pirate-friendly copyright enforcement regime.

So Shoreditch entrepreneurs don't work at weekends, then? As a small UK web business here at El Reg we can affirm nothing ever happens to websites between Friday night and Monday morning.. Phew. ®

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