Database of illegal downloaders - are British ISPs to become the "music NSA"?

Filed Under: Featured, Law & order, Privacy

Download key. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.The major UK broadband providers are being asked to create a database of customers who illegally download films, music and other protected content from the internet.

This latest move is likely borne out of frustration with the Digital Economy Act 2010 which was designed to give more power in fighting piracy but has seen delays push its full implementation date back to 2014 at the earliest.

If Virgin Media, BT, BSkyB and TalkTalk sign off on the proposal, it's anticipated that the data they collate could then be used to serve warning letters, apply for disconnections or prosecute repeat offenders.

Curbing digital piracy will be one of the topics discussed when record labels and their trade association, the BPI, meet with Prime Minister David Cameron at a Downing Street breakfast on September 12.

Film and music companies will ask broadband providers to sign up to a voluntary code which will, arguably, see them tasked with policing the internet on the behalf of the content creation industry. The Guardian reports that negotiations have already been happening for months with the BPI and the British Video Association, of which the BBC and Hollywood studios are members.

The voluntary code, should it be adopted, will see internet service providers (ISPs) tasked with creating a database of repeat offenders. These offenders would be sent warning letters stating that their internet address had been used for illegal downloads.

The letters would warn of further consequences for continued copyright infringement and would point users towards legal services for their film and musical needs.

Should the offenders ignore the letters then sanctions would be imposed, such as having access to certain sites blocked, slowing of internet connections or even prosecution.

There are some potential issues for ISPs should they adopt these measures though. Firstly, if they were to create and maintain such a database then who would pay for it? Would they pick up the tab or would it be funded by the content creators themselves?

Personally I suspect it would be option three – the consumer – who would see an increase in their broadband costs, irrespective of whether they themselves had downloaded anything illegally or not.

Pirate. Image courtesy of Shutterstock.Secondly, keeping a database of warning notices could put the broadband providers on the wrong side of the Data Protection Act which states that companies can only store information about individuals for commercial reasons.

A spokesperson for TalkTalk told the Guardian that while they would, "like to reach a voluntary agreement" their "customers' rights always come first" and they would "never agree to anything that would compromise them."

A spokeswoman for Virgin Media also had similar concerns, commenting that the current proposal is "unworkable."

When I contacted the BPI and asked them for their views on both of these issues I was told the planned meeting at No.10 was solely in response to an invitation from David Cameron after he attended a BPI 40th anniversary event in June. The only comment a spokesperson would give me was:

Record labels are key investors in British music, and, contrary to some media reports, we expect the forthcoming meeting with the Prime Minister to focus on a range of positive measures that will enable further investment in British talent, promote exports and support the continuing growth of the UK’s digital music market.

I'll leave you to ponder what this tells us along with a quote from Loz Kaye, leader of Pirate Party UK, who said:

The content industry seems intent on turning Internet Service Providers in to the music NSA.

Harsh words indeed, but ones that may well resonate with people who already have concerns about the government's digital policies, especially in the wake of surveillance claims and attempts to censor certain types of content on the internet.


Images of download key and skull and crossbones courtesy of Shutterstock.

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10 Responses to Database of illegal downloaders - are British ISPs to become the "music NSA"?

  1. Steve · 363 days ago

    Big brother in the form of your friendly ISP. The ISPs almost always impose unwritten bandwidth limitations and, although they never tell you about it, if you use too much bandwidth, they will sloooooooow your internet service to a crawl in retribution. They've got us all by the short hairs and they know it.

  2. Andy · 363 days ago

    If the ISP's do this, they will be losing a lot of their customers.
    whos to say what anyone is downloading is illegal.
    I could literally go out and buy a 2nd hand cd from a charity shop, rip the cd for my own usage and even send a copy to my family or friends, then they could be charge with downloading illegal content due to copyright infrigement.
    Considering the fact i get most of my content direct from my ISP at the moment i guess they will have to hand themselves over.

  3. Jake · 363 days ago

    I bet someone from the music industry suggested freezing people's computers if they were caught downloading stuff, and popping up a message demanding a fine to unlock it. Or maybe just planting hidden snooping software inside music files.

    Basically they need to make it easier and more flexible to get at stuff legally. There are too many proprietary closed systems - step forward apple. Ultraviolet for movies looks like a good solution but it seems to be a bit slow in adoption, even though it was already years too late when it was first proposed.

    This kind of scheming will only annoy people further, and might even create a split between mainstream snoopy ISPs for e moms'n'pops and niche freedom-supporting ones used by the savvy. Then there will be ghettos.

  4. Michael · 362 days ago

    There has always been 'ways' for people to circumvent such things. After all, people used to pass round things called floppy disks. Does anyone remember those things?

    Just like illicit drugs/prostitution; where there is demand there is usually a supply. Look at how successful the Americans' 'War on Drugs' has been (irony/sarcasm if you didn't spot it)

  5. Lee · 362 days ago

    Won't people just start using proxies, VPN's and the Tor network to bypass the snooping as the ISP's should notice the amount of data but won't know what it is.

  6. NoOne · 362 days ago

    Stopping people from downloading pirated content is not going to get those same people to buy the content. All they are doing is making people hate them more.

  7. Paul Stone · 362 days ago

    I think the uploaders of illegal content should be targeted, or am I missing something here?

    • This is indeed a slippery slope when being the recipient of information is grounds for action without trial. While copyright law is usually weighed against intent (so that there are cases where downloading could indeed be contributory to an illegal act of copying), it seems to me that intentionally making available information belonging to others (in a manner they don't condone) is the real issue, isn't it?

  8. Deramin · 362 days ago

    Would this be a database of *suspected* illegal downloaders or convicted ones? Sanctioning people without a legal conviction could put the ISPs at risk of lawsuits themselves. What mechanisms will be put in place for people added to the list to correct errors? How will situations where the person doing the downloading and the broadband subscriber are not the same (unsecured or hacked WiFi, dodgy roommate, etc)?

    The idea itself has few merits. What it would take to implement it sounds far worse for society as a whole than media pirates. Make it easy for people to get content and the vast majority of people will do that. There will always be a few people who stubbornly refuse to pay for things, though. Let's not burn the house down trying to get a few rats.

  9. Nigel · 362 days ago

    In response to Paul Stone’s incisive comment (above), Andrew Ludgate wrote:

    "... it seems to me that intentionally making available information belonging to others (in a manner they don't condone) is the real issue, isn't it?"

    Yes, it is. But evidently it's harder to stop that, so they're going after the end users.

    It won't work, of course. The thieves will find ways around the proposed database of repeat offenders, including passing the buck for their theft to others who aren't guilty. Didn't these morons in BPI, BVA, BBC, and Hollywood ever hear of spoofing IP addresses? But they’re too stupid to use technological innovation to protect their property, so they want to strong-arm everyone else into solving their problem for them.

    In any case, consumers (as the article points out) will end up footing the bill if the ISPs sign on to this idiotic scheme...which isn't going to stop thievery anyway. In other words, the vast majority of people who did not create the problem are going to be forced to pay for this non-solution. The only way to make it any worse would be to hand it over to the U.K. Parliament, the U.S. Congress, or any of their other counterparts.

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About the author

Lee Munson is the founder of Security FAQs, a social media manager with BH Consulting and a blogger with a huge passion for information security.