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Consumer Focus Warn of Systematic Errors in UK Internet Piracy Evidence

Wednesday, October 17th, 2012 (2:14 pm) - Score 770
illegal uk internet downloading

Consumer Focus has warned Rights Holders that there is a very real danger of “systematic errors” causing damage to the Internet Protocol (IP) address based evidence that they intend to use against broadband ISP customers whom are suspected of engaging in internet piracy (copyright infringement).

The consumer group’s concern, which was last week spelled out in an open letter that has since been published by the Open Rights Group (ORG), points to the 2008 trial of a letter warning system that involved six of the country’s largest broadband providers. Under this trial TalkTalk received 13,711 Copyright Infringement Reports (CIR) but only 11,481 could be matched to a valid IP address (16% error rate). BT and other ISPs have had similar problems in the past.

Online piracy is most typically tracked by monitoring the IP addresses of internet users, which is assigned to your connection each time you go online. This usually occurs while related connections are being used to upload and or download “illegal” files over public P2P (BitTorrent) file sharing networks. But as various court cases (ACS:Law, GoldenEye etc.) and other technical reports have shown, such data is prone to error.

At best an IP can only be used to identify the connection owner (bill payer), whom might not be the individual directly responsible for actually committing the offence. Indeed in the modern world an IP usually belongs to a shared home, office or public network (e.g. libraries, public wifi, hotels, families and friends etc.). In addition IP’s can easily be hijacked, spoofed, redirected and generally abused in ways that make such data worthless.

On top of that most ISPs use dynamic IP allocations where the address changes every time you go online, thus even a tiny time difference between the ISPs and Rights Holders logs can invalidate the data (i.e. you’d end up matching the IP to the wrong user).

Mike O’Connor, CEO of Consumer Focus, said:

It is anticipated that under the Digital Economy Act 2010 up to 2 million ‘copyright infringement reports’ may be submitted by the MPAA and BPI on behalf of Holywood studios and record companies every year. Even a small margin of error would be significant, and tens of thousands of internet subscribers could be wrongly identified by ISPs on the basis of your evidence and accused of copyright infringement.”

O’Connor calls for tougher hygiene checks of the data that would foster a “doctrine of perfection” where an error rate of 16% or less would in the future trigger an automatic investigation of the fault and the likely discarding of any other evidence in the same batch. For example, any time miss-match in the log would affect other data gathered in the same batch and this in turn would make it very hard to trust that even correctly matched IP addresses would connect to the right account owner.

Sadly Ofcom’s related Initial Obligations Code for ISPs, which won’t send its first letters until early 2014, is extremely vague on the matter. The regulator has promised to audit and approve copyright owners’ evidence-gathering systems “before they can send any reports” (CIRs) and warned that “failure to comply with the requirement for accurate address matching is likely to be considered a material breach of the Code, triggering enforcement action and a fine where appropriate,” yet it’s not clear how any of this will work in practice or precisely what standard the data must be held against.

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