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UK ISPs Could Implement Voluntary Piracy Warning Letters by End of 2014

Thursday, Mar 20th, 2014 (1:53 pm) - Score 2,054

The Government’s Communications Minister, Ed Vaizey, has told a recent Westminster Hall debate that their efforts to introduce a controversial Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme (VCAP) of Internet piracy warning letters, which would hit customers of the UKs largest broadband ISPs, “may be up and running before the end of the year“.

The plan to develop a voluntary alternative to the long-delayed Digital Economy Act (DEAct), which became law during 2010 but has subsequently been slowed by a series of legal squabbles (e.g. BT and TalkTalk’s demand for a Judicial Review), political disagreements, concerns over the reliability of IP address based evidence (even good data only identifies the bill payer [might not be the perpetrator on shared networks]) and cost concerns, was first revealed during September last year (here).

The DEAct and Ofcom’s related code broadly described a method by which ISPs would issue Notification Letters (Warnings) to customers, specifically those suspected by Rights Holders of involvement with “illegal” sharing of copyright material (music, games, movies etc.). Users choosing to ignore the warnings would have faced service limits, including disconnection (“temporary account suspension“), or having their details passed on to the relevant Rights Holder for possible court action.

But implementation of these measures isn’t currently anticipated until “the latter half of 2015“ (here) and some suggest that the on-going delay, especially with how costs are apportioned between Rights Holders and ISPs, could still cause further problems. So last year the Government decided to bring ISPs and Rights Holders together again in the hope of producing a voluntary solution, which was first attempted in 2008 (here). Since then some progress has been made.

Ed Vaizey told a Westminster Hall Debate in February 2014:

Perhaps that is the appropriate moment for me to pick up the point that the Select Committee Chairman made about the VCAP proposals. It has been difficult to implement the details of the Digital Economy Act 2010. The Government have not resiled from it, but there are significant technical obstacles, including the fact that we were being sued by BT and TalkTalk for at least two years from the time when it was passed.

Other technical obstacles have presented themselves, and we are actively seeking to overcome them, but nevertheless we welcome the industry initiative, not only because we hope it may be up and running before the end of the year, but because it requires a partnership between both sides of the debate, and because it brings important flexibility to make it possible to adapt. I suspect that it will be easier to adapt the system as technology changes.”

Last year Virgin Media responded to the proposed voluntary solution by describing it as “unworkable“, while TalkTalk pointed out that the idea would have required them to create a database of repeat offenders and at the time it was felt that this might be illegal under the Data Protection Act (i.e. ISPs can only retain personal details where they are needed for commercial purposes). But those aren’t the only concerns.

Jim Killock, Open Rights Group, added:

With discussions seemingly only between ISPs and rights holder trade associations, there is nobody representing the public interest or overseeing how the scheme will work to that end. The government are playing the now familiar role of watching as an ‘industry initiative’ develops – allowing them to look like they’re doing something whilst disowning themselves of any responsibility. The only online reference from DCMS I can find to the voluntary scheme is in last year’s policy paper, in which they say “the Government continues to implement the Digital Economy Act 2010, whilst encouraging industry-led alternatives”.

All the familiar issues with the Digital Economy Act apply to this new scheme. For instance, what personal information will be used, and who will have access to it? What standards of evidence will rights holders use, or will ISPs demand, when allegations of infringement are made?

Will there be any sanctions against households whose accounts have been allegedly used for infringing? Will there be any appeals process for those who feel a mistake has been made? And will the scheme include public wifi? Who is addressing any of these questions?”

As usual all of these negotiations are being conducted behind closed doors and without any real consideration of the viewpoint from consumers. The Open Rights Group (ORG), which raised some fair points above, notes that its own concerns were expressed to the Committee but ultimately seem to have been completely ignored.

Meanwhile the hugely controversial new Intellectual Property Advisor to the Prime Minister, Mike Weatherley (Conservative MP for Hove and Portslade), has been merrily threatening fresh legislation against broadband ISPs that “knowingly facilitate illegal downloading practices” and which do not take steps to stop it (here).

We assume this is intended to encourage adoption of the voluntary method instead of allowing the more aggressive DEAct to be introduced, assuming they can make it work.

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By Mark Jackson
Mark is a professional technology writer, IT consultant and computer engineer from Dorset (England), he also founded ISPreview in 1999 and enjoys analysing the latest telecoms and broadband developments. Find me on X (Twitter), Mastodon, Facebook and .
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