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Web block would 'spark arms race' against pirates

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"Communications systems are inherently designed to deliver communication," stated Mita Mitra, BT's Internet Policy overseer, yesterday while debating one of the most controversial aspects of the 2010 Digital Economy Act: that BT and other ISPs should be responsible for blocking websites that infringe copyright.

"It's a big thing, technically, philosophically, for us to stop people accessing sites... it's quite a significant engineering and technical issue to focus your efforts on effective blocking," said Mitra at the Westminster eForum on the Act yesterday.

BT and fellow internet service provider TalkTalk are dragging the Digital Economy Act through a judicial review in an attempt to delay its implementation. The case continues but while criticism has been heavy, and the government seems to have reneged on URL blocking but is seeking alternatives.

Mitra also stated that stopping casual copyright infringers and hardcore infringers required quite different approaches: "There's a difference between building stops in a system for those who are deliberate compared to those who didn't realise that they were going to do it."

Blocking aside, she also argued that it was very difficult for ISPs to judge whether copyright really had been infringed or not – stating BT's view that that was a matter for judiciary not a telecoms company.

And, she stressed, all this faffing around with blocking would take up a lot of money and time for ISPs resulting in a price hike for normal, non-piratey broadband customers.

Wrong tool for the job

Other objections to website blocking, raised by Consumer Focus policy advisor Saskia Walzel and other speakers, included the contention that blocking is a crude tool that could take down innocent websites and didn't always catch offenders. Walzel stated that not only would blocking push up prices for consumers, but that it would degrade the network as well as a technical side-effect – giving them a worse service.

And LSE academic Dr Bingchun Meng used the example of the Great Firewall in China to suggest that site blocking would likely spark a technical "arms race" as determined pirates or copyright infringers would quickly start to use other technologies to circumvent bans – such as VPN networks. The battle with the hardcore infringers would only escalate as the ISPs would have to find new technologies to combat the new technologies of the pirates.

The Ofcom chief responsible for Internet policy, Campbell Cowie, explained that they had reached a similar conclusion. The answer to preventing online copyright infringement had to come from a behaviour change rather than a technical solution:

It's not about about technology, technology can always be circumvented. It's about incentives, we put the technologists back in the box, and started to look at why people do it. It's about how you change the incentive structure, it's not a technological thing.

There were several dissenting voices.

An audience member from Warner Brothers argued that just because it was hard to enforce the law didn't mean you shouldn't try to enforce it. And a partner in law firm Wiggin, which is representing film industry in a case against subscription download site NewsBinz, said that the responsibility did lie with ISPs because they were best placed to enforce the blocks. ®

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