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By: MarkJ - 18 July, 2011 (11:48 PM)
pirate flagInternet Service Providers in the UK have today expressed concern after several Italian ISPs were forced to block access to a legal Proxy Server website. The authorities deemed that it would allow broadband subscribers to "illegally" access sites (e.g. The Pirate Bay) that had been banned (blocked) via the country's tough internet copyright infringement (piracy) laws.

Proxy Servers, which could ironically form part of the very same website filtering systems that the UK government would need for a future ban on piracy "facilitating" sites, are used far and wide for various different tasks. Crucially they can also offer ISP customers an alternative route to internet content via a foreign IP address and thus bypass related ISP-level blocking, filtering systems or regional restrictions.

An ISPA Spokesperson told ISPreview.co.uk:

"ISPA believes that blocking access to proxy servers and VPNs is not an effective means of tackling copyright infringement online and will prevent access for legitimate uses of this technology such as mobile working and securing public wireless networks.

ISPA continues to advocate new innovative business models and creative licensing models to address the problem of copyright infringement rather than blocking and filtering of websites and content."

TalkTalk's Executive Director of Strategy and Regulation, Andrew Heaney, added:

"This kind of hints at the likely inefficacy of a blocking approach since if you block a site then people find another route to get there (e.g. a proxy server) and if you ban that proxy server then people use another technique or a different proxy server. There will be only one winner in this type of arms-race / cat and mouse chase and it won’t be the state!

This demonstrates a concern with blocking in that it can be a slippery slope to censorship and blocking of legitimate sites."

As we've said before. ISP's have no real control to physically remove or block content that doesn't exist within their own network, at least not without stopping all http (web browsing) traffic. ISP imposed website blocks are easily circumvented through a number of common systems (e.g. VPN, Proxy Servers and alternative DNS servers etc.).

A Spokesperson for AAISP informed ISPreview.co.uk:

"The whole industry that relies on copyright needs to concentrate its effort on new business models. Legislating to prop up a failing business model based on century old concepts of technology is pointless in the long run.

Expecting ISPs to block things is silly as the nature of the Internet means there is always a way around it. Taking this latest move to its logical conclusion means blocking access to google even.

As an ISP we are happy to work with the industry if they want to actually move towards new business models, but not with moves that try to change the concept of "common carrier" for ISPs. After all they don't expect the electricity company to block supply of the electricity to run the computers of infringers."

Entanet's Head of Marketing, Darren Farnden, added:

"Read any of our opinion.enta.net articles and you'll see that, despite our severe criticism of the UK government's approach to curbing copyright abuse through the DEA, we're against illegal copyright infringement by Internet users and of course any UK ISP receiving a Court Order should comply with the Law.

The Italian government's latest measures are surprising given the potential scale of battle it is entering into with those determined to provide or obtain access to such sites. It will be interesting to see what develops and how the UK government interprets it, if at all. We would simply reiterate our argument that it is not the place for UK ISPs to 'police' the Internet."

The vast majority of these services have nothing to do with piracy and often form an essential part of the internet and its processes. Many businesses and shared networks operate VPN solutions (i.e. remote working) or run their connections through a proxy, which allows them to keep tighter control of access and content.

The Italian block of a Proxy Server could thus conceivably now be applied to any related sites, such as those who operate Virtual Private Networks (VPN), alternative DNS servers (e.g. OpenDNS) or similar systems. The impact of this would be significant for legal services and many remain concerned that the UK could go down a similar path.

It's worth remembering that the recent civil uprisings in Iran, Egypt, Syria, Tunisia and Libya would have been far more difficult without similar services, such as TOR (a network of virtual tunnels that allow people, journalists and groups to communicate with almost total anonymity). Unfortunately, just as with the humble motorcar, such tools can also be abused by those who have dubious intent.

Meanwhile Rights Holders and UK broadband providers are still quietly working behind the scenes to establish a new Voluntary Code of Practice for blocking any internet website that is deemed to "facilitate" piracy (here). TalkTalk's Andrew Heaney informed us that they "will only block access to sites when a court has decided whether a site is acting illegally and a court has decided that the appropriate sanction is blocking access to that site."

The above case illustrates the importance of making sure that an impartial and independent UK judge is used to examine each request, otherwise the risk of mission creep would be far too significant. Few could doubt the need to tackle piracy but it's important that this done fairly and legitimately so that legal sites and services are not damaged.

UPDATE 10:05am

We've been pointed to an interesting article on TorrentFreak, which notes how a website hosting the related Proxy Server has managed to avoid the censorship by simply moving its domain and servers onto Google's App services (http://proxyitalia.appspot.com/*******). As a result the Italian authorities cannot easily restrict access without affecting Google's own traffic. It remains to be seen how Google itself will respond, although Proxy Servers are not illegal. We've also had a new comment.

Simon Davies, IDNet UK's Director, told ISPreview.co.uk:

"This is another example of a knee-jerk reaction by technologically-ignorant politicians. Banning proxy servers will break more legitimate traffic than illegal traffic and will cause serious hinderance to industry and commerce. Real peoples jobs could be lost in the pursuit of appeasing the record companies. The illegal traffic will simply drop into an SSL-encrypted BiTorrent and then the politicians will be back to where they started from except that they have now managed to break a lot of their business communications."

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