Original URL: http://www.theregister.co.uk/2008/02/28/filesharing_downing_st_petition/

Filesharers petition Downing Street on 'three strikes'

BPI, government and ISPA should be first to sign

By Christopher Williams

Posted in Law, 28th February 2008 08:02 GMT

Comment A petition urging the Prime Minister not to introduce "three strikes" legislation against illegal filesharing has made its debut on the 10 Downing Street website.

In their campaign for digital freedoms, peer to peer users are demanding that the government doesn't force the issue. But ironically, they are inadvertently wishing themselves a world where their online activities are governed by an opaque industry settlement, negotiated in secret.

The e-petition asserts: "We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to not force internet service providers to act as legal representatives for the RIAA and be treated like a common courier."

Both the BPI and ISPA would likely support the statement. Neither wants legislation - it's clumsy, slow and expensive. As we've reported over recent months, the ISPs are already resigned to implementing disconnection procedures against persistent illegal filesharers, and the remaining battles are over money.

Indeed, since an enforcement system is now inevitable, net users should consider whether it might be better if the government did have to go through with threats to write new laws. It would at least mean the carve-up would take place as part of a more public process, with parliamentary scrutiny of the final procedures.

The e-petition at least gets its facts rights on what role the ISPs are being told they must play. "Under these sanctions, the industry tells your ISP they suspect illegal behaviour. Then your ISP writes to you," the petitioners correctly state in the accompanying details.

Their clarity is admirable in the current environment. Since the plans made a splash in the mainstream two weeks ago, the public debate has been awash with technological tosh. Tinfoil hat fantasies about ISPs being forced to inspect every packet have been bounced around with little regard for the truth. Meanwhile journalists have struggled to get to grips with the issues at play, driving them to the classic cop-out of reporting the controversy, rather than helping the millions of ordinary UK citizens affected to understand the implications of the facts.

So let's all run through the notes together once more, this time with feeling:

  • The rights holder body (BPI/MPAA/whoever) will act as the "policeman". Its job is to catch you.
  • It will provide your ISP with easily-obtained (see video here) screenshot evidence showing your IP address participating in a copyright infringing BitTorrent swarm.
  • The ISP will act as the "magistrate". Its job is to punish you.
  • It will issue warnings to you to stop illegally filesharing, effectively putting you on probation.
  • After an agreed number of warnings - probably two, maybe more - if the rights holder supplies further evidence you are still involved in infringement, you will be disconnected.
  • Consider yourself digitally ASBO'd. We don't know yet whether you'll appear on a shared naughty list.

It's really that simple. For the technically astute, such a system will be easy to circumvent from the get-go. Four out of 21 people accused under the procedure at Tiscali last year ended up booted off the internet, mind you. Joe Bloggs neither knows nor cares what an anonymous proxy is, but he loves his free music.

Money talks

There are obvious and serious problems with this system that ought to be debated in public. How will an appeals process work? Will disconnected users have any redress in the courts? Will the rights holder body or the ISP be liable? What if the accusation comes from abroad? How will a voluntary system work within the bounds of existing laws? The key point is that they are instead under discussion by corporate lawyers and bean counters behind closed doors.

It's telling that on these questions the ISPA and the BPI already speak with one voice. A self-regulatory scheme is preferable and still in the works, both say, and these details can just be ironed out.

For consumers the proposals raise justified fears about fair treatment, personal data and rights to internet access. We live in Gordon Brown's "knowledge economy", do we not? Yet the nub of all these matters for ISPs and the rights organisations is cash, not principles. The Downing Street petitioners would do well to bear that in mind.

That the decisions are being made without public input suits the government down to the ground. It knows better than anyone that laws are formal, thorough beasts, and must be consulted upon.

Everyone who cares about this needs to realise that telling the record industry "three strikes" won't restore its 1980s business model or that it is in an unwinnable arms race is pointless. That side-argument is boring, often childish, and in 2008 is best left to the pages of Digg.

Rights holders' successful Westminster lobbying has not been about stamping out illegal filesharing. The BPI et al are not stupid enough to dream that would ever be possible. Their aim is to change the mainstream perception of it as a normal online activity with no consequences. And the government now backs this aim wholeheartedly.

Nobody at any of the six ISPs that now control more than 95 per cent of the UK broadband market would dare disagree. In truth, spreading ludicrous suggestions that heavy users could be targeted simply for heavy use or FUD about deep packet inspection (DPI) suits the ISPs' negotiating goals at the moment. Their aim is not to lose any money on the deal, as ISPA conceded earlier this month when it said its primary concern is to ensure its members are indemnified against lawsuits.

For the UK's internet public, the battle over whether online copyright infringement will be more tightly controlled is already lost. Filesharers are left with the dim hope that financial squabbling between ISPs and rights holders over the next few months call the government's legislative bluff. It's the only way they'll get a say in the matter.

You're welcome to share your thoughts in our comments section, of course. Freetards, pigopolists, and everyone inbetween. ®

Bootnote

One futher piece of misinformation being spread is that the UK government got the "three strikes" idea from the French, who are indeed further ahead in implementing it.

The reverse is true. As Lord Triesman told El Reg in January, it was a meeting with our government last year that inspired Sarkozy's bunch to crack down.