Thursday, February 14, 2008

Forcing ISPs to be copyright police

Peter Bradwell has an interesting post on the DEMOS blog about the government's reported plans to force ISPs to cut off customers suspected of copyright infringement.
The proposals, as reported at least, seem to be that ISPs would give two warnings to users about the downloading of pirated material, before being banned from their connection.

I wouldn't be surprised if the final consultation Green Paper contains somewhat different proposals. But starting from the presumption that these or similar proposals are really under consideration, there are two points that vex me about this.

Firstly, this would be an interesting and serious change to the principle that ISPs do not discriminate between types of traffic (see (and here) the related network neutrality debate - we touched on this in the FYI pamphlet). There are both ethical and practical reasons for this. For the former, the questions relate to ISPs' mandate to police networks; and the process of deciding what and whose traffic is legitimate and legal. In terms of practicality, it is difficult to see how this will actually work. Can I email my friends mp3s? Will something be scanning what I send? What is the technology that facilitates this? in short, exactly how will ISPs determine what is an illegal piece of data? There's more on this here.)

It is interesting that this is happening in an area less than ethically, culturally and even economically clear-cut (music downloading). Whatever arguments I have heard, I do not see as entirely valid the simplistic connection between stealing a product from a shop and sharing music online - as it is made, for example, by the BPI. Music is more than a product - it is part of our cultural life. It needs to be shared, built upon, talked about and critiqued. Cultural industries are supposed to support people's ability to do this, and not play too strong a role in deciding how it happens.

Which leads to the second point. It strikes me that the music industry are precisely the wrong people to be negotiating with Internet Service Providers. It's like asking non-doms to write their own tax rules. The recent past has, surely, all but destroyed much of the bigger end of the music industry's credibility in the field of promoting the interests of music and culture? The self-interest of some of the biggest players seems to me to have helped to promote misguided technological constraints; has restricted people's ability to use new technology to explore new ways of making and distributing (and selling) music and film; and has almost certainly worked to the financial detriment of their industry (try to find a decent download service for films in the UK, especially for Mac users, for example).

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