- 12 Feb 08, 08:42 GMT
The news that the UK government is considering legislation to ban people from the net if they are found guilty of online copyright theft is a dramatic escalation in the battle against "piracy".
If the law were enacted it would turn ISPs, like BT, Tiscali and Virgin, into a pro-active police force who would have to monitor traffic on the internet in order to look out for copyright files being swapped online.
This legislation would mean the UK would have the most stringent and prohibitive anti-piracy laws in the world.
It would be a technical challenge for ISPs to do this. Monitoring traffic that is shared using file-sharing tools like BitTorrent is perfectly feasible - as the programs use specific internet ports. In fact, ISPs already monitor file-sharing traffic across the net in order to shape the flow of information - prioritising certain bits of data over others.
Knowing where to look isn't the problem; knowing what to look for is. Every day many terabytes of data are being shared over the internet using file-sharing tools. Individual packets of information can be inspected - but who can tell if Person A is sharing an MP3 file of his own band performing with Person B or if it's the latest Kylie track?
Would all digital content have to be watermarked? Would ISPs have responsibility for this? If not, who would?
And there is evidence that more people are encrypting files that they send over peer to peer networks, making it difficult to know exactly what they are sharing. That may give rise to further suspicion but will ISPs be given powers to force users to decrypt their files?
Internet service providers have long been loath to become the net police - for obvious legal and financial reasons. They see themselves as passive conduits, like a road network or the postal system.
The global record industry has been quick to back the government's proposal.
"It is simply not acceptable for ISPs to turn a blind eye to the piracy on their networks which is at such a rate that there are 20 illegal music downloads for every legal track sold," said John Kennedy of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industries.
Digital rights activist will be outraged by this move, I'm sure. Monitoring our internet traffic will have huge privacy issues.
No-one can deny that the scale of copyright theft is mammoth. A cursory glance at a website like The Pirate Bay revels thousands of films, TV programmes, albums, software programs etc being shared across the net.
But there is legitimate debate about what this means to the global content industry and to consumers. Does it signal a seismic shift in the way people want to pay, use and share their content, and what we understand by copyright? Or is it wholesale theft that needs to be stamped out user by user by user?
As I suspected, there are already warnings about the privacy implications of this proposal as well as warnings about how big a technical challenge it would be.
Patrick Charnley, solicitor in the media group at international law firm Eversheds, comments: "In practice, however, the government's proposals may prove difficult to implement. How, for example, would an ISP deal with a person downloading legal peer-to-peer content ?
"If an ISP has to monitor exactly what each user is doing on sites normally known for their illegal content, not only may this be an unacceptably onerous task, but it may also land the ISPs on the wrong side of privacy law."
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