UK government says internet users who download illegally may have accounts cut off

By Karolina Tagaris, AP
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

UK says illegal downloaders may lose Web access

LONDON — People who repeatedly download copyright-protected films and music could have their Internet connection cut off under proposed laws the British government unveiled Tuesday to tackle illegal file-sharing.

Treasury Minister Stephen Timms said that previous plans, which would only have restricted users’ broadband speed, did not go far enough. That potential punishment remains under the new proposal, but is accompanied by the possibility of blocking offenders’ access to download sites as well as banning them from the Internet altogether.

Civil-rights groups and Internet service providers criticized the proposal as unnecessarily restricting users’ rights without doing much to tackle online piracy.

If the measures are passed when they come to Parliament in November, Britain would join France in attempting to cut off Internet access for offenders.

The British proposal could potentially conflict with a European Parliament ruling in May prohibiting European Union governments from cutting off a user’s Internet connection without a court order. A final version of that measure must still be negotiated with the European Council.

The French government initially defied that ruling when it passed a similar cutoff law in May, but a French court later ruled that only a judge could allow Internet access to be cut off. French lawmakers are working on a new bill.

Still, France has already created what may be the first government agency to track and punish online pirates. The earliest a British ban could be put into place is 2011.

The British proposals put the onus on Internet service providers to catch offenders. Providers would have to issue written warnings to subscribers whose IP address — the unique number assigned to every computer that connects to the Internet — has been spotted accessing a download site.

Copyright holders would then be able to use a court order to access details of such warnings and sue any suspected offender.

The latest British proposal assumes that the written warnings and court action by copyright holders will be enough to reduce illegal downloads by around 70 per cent. If those measures prove ineffective, the government will then consider technicalities of how and when to cut off Internet access.

It is not clear, however, whether and how service providers would verify that files accessed through the download site are illegal. Although many file-sharing sites do contain movies and songs shared illegally, they can also be used by some independent directors and bands to distribute their works with their consent.

The proposal — a consultation document at the moment — works on the assumption that service providers will know which sites are legal and which are not.

Internet provider TalkTalk said it would “strongly resist” government attempts to oblige Internet service providers to act as Internet police. TalkTalk said disconnecting alleged offenders “will be futile given that it is relatively easy for determined filesharers to mask their identity or their activity to avoid detection.”

The Open Rights Group, which protects civil liberties in the area of digital technology, said any suspension would “restrict people’s fundamental right to freedom of expression.”

But the British Phonographic Industry, which represents the recorded music industry, said the move was “a step forward that should help the legal digital market to grow for consumers.”

The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry estimates it loses billions of dollars worldwide from online piracy, far more than it makes from legal Internet sales.

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