It’s election time in the UK. This will probably not be the last political post I make here in the next few weeks.
At least this one is still heavily tech-related. It’s about the Digital Economy Act, which I wrote an angry letter to my MP about. (Incidentally – no response to that latter, although he has contacted me on Twitter asking to explain himself.)
One of the provisions in the Act was to allow disconnection of ‘persistent’ file-sharers. That’s people who have been caught by the BPI and other rights holder groups and have had a series of increasingly sternly-worded letters posted, or possibly just emailed, out to them. There is no court involved in this procedure, and if you want to appeal it you’ll have to pay the costs yourself – legal aid is not available.
It’s basically a presumption of guilt based on the say-so of a commercial organisation, and is pretty appalling. That’s why Willie Rennie’s lost my vote, even pushing me to reach out to the Labour candidate (who sadly doesn’t reply to his email).
When defending this provision the government has always made it clear that this would only be used as a last resort against the most persistent offenders. It’s not something that ‘normal people’ would ever have to be concerned with. I suppose that sounds reasonable enough – while the metrics used by the affected industries (one download = one lost sale) are faulty, there’s obviously some sales lost to illegal downloading and there are people who never buy music or DVDs and just download absolutely everything.
At the same time, people of a more technical nature have pointed out that it’s not that hard to work around the kind of IP address tracking the BPI and others use to track down people sharing their material. You can get a VPN connection to another country that has no laws regarding this – I’ve not looked into this too much, but I believe you can get a suitable connection to a European country for around €5 a month. Configure your computer to send all traffic through that and there’s no reasonable way for anyone to trace it back to you.
The government’s response to this has been to point out that no normal person would ever bother with such a set-up and that only the most hardened and technical users would even try.
Again, that seems entirely reasonable. Most people have trouble using the basic functions of their computer, nevermind configuring a VPN client (at least without the aid of corporate IT support). Similarly, they’re not likely to pay even €5 a month for it, since the whole point to them is that the internet provides free things for them.
Except that when you look at both of these arguments together, it doesn’t make any sense at all. If disconnection only applies to the most hardcore users, and those same hardcore users are the ones likely to route around detection entirely, then almost no one will be disconnected.
The disconnection provision has easily been the most controversial thing in the Act. If it had been dropped the Bill would have had a much easier ride through parliament. The government could have used it to show that it was making major concessions and earned brownie points with the very vocal internet crowd who now hate them. I think that keeping that provision has hurt the government in the upcoming election more than it has helped them. So why has it been kept?
It’s not secret that this bill was largely pushed through parliament by media industry lobbyists. The front bench of both of the government and opposition wanted it passed, even though the opposition claimed to not support it. I guess everyone got a pile of money they needed to fund their election campaigns. Whoever wins will probably get a pile more money to ensure that Ofcom’s investigation into how ‘technical measures’ (such as disconnection) are applied produces a report which fits the media industry’s requirements.
The Act doesn’t set out the details for how disconnection will be applied. That’s going to be determined over the first six months or so of the next parliament. My expectation is that it’s going to apply a lot more widely than just a handful of ‘extreme’ file-sharers. Those people weren’t going to be caught by this anyway. It’s going to be aimed at making disconnection an eventual outcome for anyone who downloads any material the BPI’s members don’t want shared.
Expect it to be an automatic process – after some number of reports by the rights holders, you get a letter. After a number of letters, you get ‘technical measures’. Remember that there’s no court involved here – just a claim by a commercial organisation or a trade body that you’ve been doing Naughty Things. Enough claims, true or not, and you’ll have to pay for your chance to oppose it.
The big content producers are scared of the internet. They don’t know how to make money off of it yet. They wish they could make it go away. Passing a law that could allow them to bully you entirely off of the internet gives them a chance to do just that.