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UPDATE ISPs Set to Agree Weakened Voluntary Internet Piracy Warning Letters

Friday, May 9th, 2014 (8:14 am) - Score 2,637

A new report claims that the United Kingdom’s four largest home broadband ISPs (BT, TalkTalk, Sky Broadband and Virgin Media) are expected to imminently agree a controversial new Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme of Internet piracy warning letters with the Motion Picture Association and British Phonographic Industry.

Regular readers will note our March 2014 report in which we revealed that the Government’s Communications Minister, Ed Vaizey, had told a recent Westminster Hall debate that the new VCAP system could be “up and running before the end of the year” (here). In this setup Rights Holders would identify suspected pirates by their IP address (e.g. through monitoring public P2P File Sharing activity) and notify the ISP, which would then send a letter or email “alert” (warning) to the user.

At the time Vaizey’s comment seemed optimistic given that Virgin Media had previously described the proposal as “unworkable“, while TalkTalk pointed out that the idea would have required them to create a database of repeat offenders and that this could conflict with the Data Protection Act (i.e. ISPs can only retain personal details where they are needed for commercial purposes).

On top of that the Open Rights Group (ORG) also questioned what personal information might be used, who will have access to it, what standards of evidence would be adopted in order to help identify customers whom are suspected of Internet copyright infringement (piracy), will there be an appeals process and would whole homes / shared networks face sanctions on their connectivity if a pirate is identified.

Sadly the closed-door negotiations meant that no answers to any of these questions were forthcoming, which is perhaps unsurprising given that the Prime Minister’s own Intellectual Property Advisor, Mike Weatherley (Conservative MP for Hove and Portslade), has already threatened legislation against broadband ISPs that don’t capitulate (here).

So today’s report by the BBC, which reveals that an agreement between the major ISPs and Rights Holders is now “imminent“, will not come as much of a surprise. But the good news is that the plan has been watered down, which means that customers won’t face “punitive measures” and Rights Holders won’t be granted access to a database of suspected offenders.

What Can Suspected Pirates Expect?

Customers suspected by Rights Holders of Internet piracy can expect to receive an “educationalalert letter that will prompt the subscriber to increase their awareness of legal downloading services. The letters will recognise that an IP address cannot be used to identify a specific individual (most fixed line broadband connections are shared between more than one person) and thus the account owner will not be directly accused.

The ISPs will also be required to keep a record of customer accounts that have received alerts, which must be retained for up to a year. However the Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) will need to approve this approach (collection of customer data) before it can be adopted and crucially this data will not be shared with Rights Holders.

Rights Holders will pay £750k to each of the major ISPs in order to help them set-up the new VCAP system (plus £75k per year to assist with running costs), which the BBC suggests represents 75% of the overall costs (i.e. ISPs are likely to pick-up the remaining tab but the report isn’t clear). The industry’s other ISPs are expected to join at a “later date“, although we’d be very surprised to see a mass adoption among the smallest providers (costs are much more of an issue at that end of the market).

Statement from the BPI and MPA:

Content creators and ISPs, with the support of government, have been exploring the possibility of developing an awareness programme that will support the continuing growth of legal creative content services, reduce copyright infringement and create the best possible customer experience online.”

In addition, a cap of 2.5 million alert letters has been set for all four ISPs combined (this will be raised as more providers join). But broadband providers will only be able to send a maximum of 4 letters to any given subscriber and after that no further action will be taken, which will no doubt be a big frustration for Rights Holders. It’s understood that the language of the letters will “escalate in severity” but not contain threats.

The system is initially expected to run for 3 years pending regular reviews and or later extension.

Why Now?

The reason for this approach, which has been tried once before and is even enshrined in legislation through the 2010 Digital Economy Act (DEAct), is because the latter law has struggled to be implemented due to legal challenges (e.g. BT and TalkTalk’s efforts to seek 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]) and cost concerns.

The Act and Ofcom’s related code broadly described a method by which ISPs would issue Notification Letters to customers (suspected pirates). Customers who chose to ignore the warnings would have faced service limits, possibly including disconnection (“temporary account suspension“) and or having their details passed on to the relevant Rights Holder for possible court action.

Needless to say this approach was deeply unpopular and all of the various delays meant that implementation of the Acts measures had, at the last update during mid-2013, been delayed until “the latter half of 2015“ and some have since suggested that 2016 was now more likely (here). A few even doubted whether the measures would ever materialise. So instead the Government decided to pursue development of VCAP, with a threat to bring the DEAct back again if the systems proves “effective“.

However the BBC does not explain what it means by “effective” because in our view a successful system would help to reduce the level of piracy to such a point that the DEAct would not be necessary. In any case what we have now is effectively a return to the original 2009 Digital Britain Review proposal, before Lord Peter Mandelson waded in to make it more aggressive at the last minute (largely without debate) and thus trigger years and years of delay.

At the end of the day this is what we should have started with and it’s a shame they took so many years to get back to this point. The question now will be whether or not any of this actually makes a difference or if it will simply encourage casual pirates to educate themselves in how to avoid being detected in the first place (e.g. VPNs etc.).

UPDATE 9:10am

Industry sources have told ISPreview.co.uk that there may still be a long way to go before the new measures are agreed, not least because at least two of the ISPs aren’t happy with the current approach and this in turn means that the other two don’t want to sign (i.e. the desire for a level playing field to avoid competitive advantages etc.).

Meanwhile the Internet Service Providers Association (ISPA) has been left excluded from the talks, which means that smaller ISPs have had practically zero say in the progress. The hope appears to be that if the Government and Rights Holders get the big boys on-board then the rest will follow, which rarely seems to work in practice (e.g. website blocking).

The ISPA itself thus cannot comment on the matter until the contents of the policy have been made available for scrutiny by their membership and all the potential impacts analysed.

This all begs the question, did the latest document leak via the Government or Rights Holders since ISPs wouldn’t stand to gain by sharing it.

Leave a Comment
15 Responses
  1. darren says:

    well I think this could work legal action was never the way and cutting people of would be wrong education letters was the best approach that way I think a lot of people would stop

  2. sentup.custard says:

    Has the government changed the calendar without me being notified?
    Is today April the 1st not May the 9th?

    This should be about as effective as the TV licensing people sending me a “warning” about once a month, which I don’t even open, it goes straight in the recycling box.

    (For the record, I don’t have telly, I don’t watch it on the PC either, I have no need of a licence, but in view of their attitude I refuse to co-operate by letting their bods in to verify this – I’m aware that they have no legal powers per se, so I tell them to eff off and come back with a warrant)

  3. Agrajag says:

    Most prolific Torrent downloaders use a VPN or proxy. This new developement wont do anything to catch or discourage those people. Will they start sending “alerts” to anyone with a higher than average monthly usage?

  4. X66yh says:

    I doubt letters will work
    This sort of person does not really give a toss about anything or anyone else.

    I can see VPN’s only being permitted on business lines as a next stage though.

    1. Bob2002 says:

      >I can see VPN’s only being permitted on business lines as a next stage though.

      I can also see some type of action being taken against VPN use in the longer term. It won’t matter whether it is effective or not, politicians are the “something must be done!” brigade and if they feel offended by the use of VPNs they will do something, anything, just to make a point.

  5. haaa says:

    fail fail

  6. darren says:

    education is the key factor in all this

  7. hmmm says:

    lol think again ed vaizey your a daft **** will it work FAIL…

    [admin note: removed swearing]

  8. X66yh says:

    why do you have to be so offensive?

  9. Graeme says:

    Most use a seedbox or vpn so will only catch the people who download the odd thing

    1. timeless says:

      thats all they need to do, after all once they have their talons in you and you start receiving demands for compensation, chances are youll be paying out extortionate fees triple what you would have spent just buying it…

  10. Kyle says:

    I have a suggestion… If instead of this, they created a site where you can pay, erm I don’t know £10 a month that had every single movie and series on there constantly, and every new release of everything was put on there, including an added fee of an extra £5 and you can have the ability to listen to every single song every released, and create your own playlists etc, I’m pretty sure piracy would go down a lot, and these wont be necessary.

    1. timeless says:

      indeed, like l said in a similar article this week, if you provide the content at a reasonable price no one would go elsewhere, but as it is the industry is just one big extortion.. the idea being how much money they can get out of the public and how many politicians they can get on their payroll.

  11. Darren says:

    Free toilet paper! Fantastic!

  12. cyclope says:

    Some say education, and the government are suitable teachers to educate the masses are they, i think not, as they are a bunch of self serving clueless ex public school boys, who live in the safety of their own little bubble Government in general are the ones that need educating in life it’s self, with a big does of common sense for good measure, then they would be dangerous.

    This latest bullshit ain’t gonna work, buy hey they like wasting tax payers money on this kind of crap looking after their own interests for life after politics maybe, look at B liar now, he should be locked up for war crimes

    As for the big ISP’s trying to stop the use of VPN’s on residential products, good luck with that one, and if they did manage to do that, they would find themselves with fewer customers as a result,

    As for VPN’s themselves, the government would not be able to do much with them, not a chance of stopping them or people using them, that would be against human rights among other legislation,
    Just how far do you think they could go and get away with it? do you think that internet users would continue to buy an internet service that is in effect a walled garden ? even the sheeple would wake up to it,soon after the rest of us had, that business model would fall flat on its face in no time at all

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