UK Confirms Plans To Warn, Throttle, Kick Illegal Downloaders

The UK government, as expected, will write in to November’s upcoming Digital Economy Bill a French-style, graduated-response method of tackling unauthorised content downloading, controversially leading to eventual possible suspension of ISP accounts for persistent infringers.

Business, Innovation & Skills minister Peter Mandelson told the government’s C&binet creative industries gathering: “What we will be putting before parliament is a proportionate measure that will give people ample awareness (of their wrongdoing) and opportunity to stop breaking the rules. It will be clear to them that they have been detected, that they are breaking the law and risk prosecution.

“It will also make clear that we will go further and make technical measures available, including account suspension. In this case, there will be a proper route of appeal. But it must become clear that the days of consequence-free, widespread online infringement are over.

“Technical measures will be a last resort – and I have no expectation of mass suspensions resulting. If we reach the point of suspension for an individual, they will be informed in advance, having previously received two notifications, and will have the opportunity to appeal … the threat for persistent infringers has to be real.”

June’s initial Digital Britain report had already proposed directing Ofcom to order that ISPs direct “technical measures” against consumers, including blocking sites, protocols and ports; bandwidth capping or shaping and content filtering. But Mandelson stepped in in August to propose quicker action and the addition of account suspension to that list of measures.

The proposed measures would come along with the earlier-mentioned “education” campaign; costs would be shared by ISPs and content rightsholders.

France has now implemented its own “three-strikes” proposal to create an agency that will warn, warn again and then disconnect those who illegally download content. Euro-MPs, too, have dropped their insistence that customers who are the subject of a disconnection order should receive a court hearing.

Confirmation of the proposals will go down well with Big Media but met reluctantly by ISPs, most of which don’t want to ban their own customers.

And it will be received badly with what Mandelson’s colleague, creative industries minister Sion Simon MP,” called “web libertarians” in a Tuesday C&binet session. There is a sizable camp that would rather the government make copyright reforms that let people do more, not less, with media content. Open Rights Group executive director Jim Killock, from the C&binet floor, told Mandelson the file-sharing issue is a “distraction”. Mandelson replied: “I know your view – I’m familiar with your view – I don’t accept your view, as you know.”

But Mandelson, in his speech, did commit the Digital Economy Bill to “easier and cheaper access to copyrighted material and this is a key part … we need to be clear what is and is not allowed”: “At present, the legal framework … disallows all sorts of perfectly sensible private uses like moving songs from a computer on to an iPod. If the rules are to be enforced, then the rules need to be sensible and up to date.”

He spoke about liberalising intellectual property law “for pre-commercial use of copyright material, where wider access could help transform information into innovative commercial uses … and for non-commercial use in the home”. But details of this proposal were thin, and such changes must be implemented by Europe, Mandelson said.

Asked whether Creative Commons has a part to play, he even said: “It’s a perfectly reasonable approach – it’s one that I’d like to take in to consideration and possibly incorporate.”

But, for every observer who has had their own hopes for Digital Britain, Mandelson’s intervention in the policy has been narrow and clear and should be understood as such: it’s the economy, stupid. Creative industries comprise four percent of UK exports (£16 billion), employ two million people and, so, must be protected as an economic asset, he said.

“They’re one of the ways to recover from the pains and grief in our banking system over the last year. There is no economy on earth in which the creative industries play such an important part in overall growth and job creation.

“I was shocked to learn that only one in every 20 tracks downloaded in the UK is downloaded legally. One just can’t have sustainable creative industries under the pressure of this kind of theft.

“The British government’s view is that taking people’s work without paying is wrong – we cannot sit back and do nothing as this happens. The trouble is that too many users of digitised cultural goods simply don’t see it that way.

“The important cultural and ethical sense that it is an issue of right-and-wrong is eroding before our eyes. Trying to evolve new business models against these kinds of attitudes is very hard and I take my hat off to those who have tried. But the government also has a responsibility to act…”