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By: MarkJ - 25 August, 2009 (10:00 AM)
The UK government has officially proposed an amendment to Lord Carter's final Digital Britain report, which would include a new policy that would give Ofcom greater powers to tackle illegal online file sharers sooner. This will now also include the controversial measure of suspending "hard core copyright pirates" from their broadband ISP.
The move, which was first rumoured last week (original news), appears to go against the conclusions of the original Digital Britain report (here). The controversial disconnection proposal was ruled out in favour of warnings and technical measures (e.g. speed reduction or website blocks etc.). That followed several years of largely unproductive wrangling between consumer groups, ISPs and Rights Holders.

The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) has now stated that the original time-frame for implementation of the Digital Britain proposals was simply too long, which is fair enough. Still this does not explain why a tougher stance has suddenly been proposed, despite previously being all but ruled out on a number of occasions.

However it is important to remember that BIS has included the new proposal under its existing "consultation" on "technical measures" to combat piracy, thus it is not a replacement for the current proposals as some of the mass media may have incorrectly interpreted. In fact the actual text states:

BIS Statement on Illegal File Sharing - Digital Britain

The Government is seeking views on the idea of including a power, under the forthcoming Digital Economy Bill, for the Secretary of State to direct Ofcom to introduce technical measures to clamp down on piracy, if necessary.

This would involve an obligation on Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to take action against individual, repeat infringers - for example by blocking access to download sites, reducing broadband speeds, or by temporarily suspending the individual’s Internet account. Evidence on whether such action is required would be provided in regular reports from Ofcom to the Secretary of State.

Previously, it had been proposed that Ofcom would undergo a detailed process in order to ascertain that technical measures were required. With this approach, the earliest that measures could come into play was during 2012. The Government has now reached the view that, if action was deemed necessary, this might be too long to wait given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy. The new ideas outlined today would potentially allow action to be taken earlier.

The Government is also considering adding account suspension to the list of technical measures that could be used only as a last resort against the hard core of copyright pirates.

The statement claims that the government is merely "considering" adding account suspension to the list of technical measures and is seeking feedback on the idea from stakeholders. This process is expected to be completed by 29th September 2009 and it is noted that "responses received so far will still be given full consideration".

Minister for Digital Britain, Stephen Timms said:

“Technology and consumer behaviour is fast-changing and it’s important that Ofcom has the flexibility to respond quickly to deal with unlawful file-sharing.

We’ve been listening carefully to responses to the consultation this far, and it’s become clear there are widespread concerns that the plans as they stand could delay action, impacting unfairly upon rights holders.

So we look forward to hearing views on our new ideas, which along with those already received, will help us determine the best way to tackle this complex challenge.”

Law firms currently track suspected illegal P2P activity by monitoring IP addresses, which are assigned to every computer when you go online, yet IP's can easily be spoofed, redirected, shared over big networks or even hijacked (open Wi-Fi networks etc.). The download itself could also be encrypted, making it nearly impossible for the ISP to verify.

The only true way to tell if somebody has done something illegal is to analyse their computers hard disk drive, otherwise you could just as easily end up targeting innocent users, which has already happened on a number of occasions. Suspending connections based on unreliable data and without a trial seems like a gross abuse. ISPs are not a police force and do not own content on the Internet.

In addition the government is also seeking views on how the costs of the process should be covered. It proposes that some costs, such as the operating costs of sending out notifications (piracy warning letters) and Ofcom’s costs as the Regulator, should be shared equally between ISPs and rights holders.

UPDATE - 2:48pm

Here is what ISPs and consumer groups are saying - LINK.
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