In Depth

Piracy crackdown imminent – how will it affect you?

Internet pirates to receive ‘alert’ letters from 2015. But are more draconian measures on the horizon?

THE entertainment industry and UK internet service providers (ISPs) are set to launch a new scheme to combat internet piracy.

Under the scheme, the major British ISPs will send “educational” letters to people suspected of downloading content illegally, alerting them to how films, software and music can be downloaded through more official channels.

The plan is the culmination of years of discussion between content creators and ISPs on how to address the problem of illegal downloading. Many see it as a “Trojan horse” that may precede the introduction of more draconian measures.

So how will the plan work, and will it affect ordinary internet users?

What is internet piracy? Internet piracy involves downloading copyrighted material without paying for it. According to UNESCO, the most common types of piracy concern books, music, films and software. Many online pirates use peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent or file-hosting services such as the now defunct megaupload.com.

How common is it? More common than you may think. According to an Ofcom report, almost one in five British people engage in some form of copyright infringement online. The report, published last year, found that 17 per cent of Internet users admitted to having infringed copyright online. Of those, just two per cent were responsible for the vast majority of piracy. This figure accounts for almost three-quarters (74 per cent) of all online piracy committed in the UK.

What will the new measures do? BT, Sky, TalkTalk and Virgin Media plan to send out letters to people believed to be downloading content illegally. The first round of letters – known as “alerts” – will go out in 2015.

Four alerts will be sent out via email or in the form of physical letters to internet users who do not change their online behaviour, using language that “escalates in severity”. But after the fourth alert is sent, no further action will be taken.

Will it work? Similar measures have been put in place in both the United States and New Zealand. The US “six-strike” campaign involved five of its biggest ISPs issuing notices to people suspected of internet piracy. The US law differs from the UK proposal, though, because after their sixth warning, a suspected copyright infringer may have his or her internet access restricted. New Zealand says it has halved its rate of online piracy through introducing a similar “three-strike” rule – though that law too has consequences for copyright infringement, including fines of up to £7,600.

Does the plan go far enough? The BBC’s technology reporter Dave Lee says that the plan is incredibly mild and the gulf between what was originally proposed – cutting online pirates’ internet speeds, or disconnecting people altogether – and what has been agreed “could not be more stark”.

According to Lee, though, insiders suggest that there could be a “bigger game at play here”.

The current agreement stipulates that if the proposed measures do not work then rights holders may call for the “rapid implementation” of the controversial Digital Economy Act, and “all the strict measures that come with it”.

Steve Kuncewicz, an expert in online and internet law, suggests that the deal “may be a Trojan horse exercise in gathering intelligence about how seriously downloaders take threats”. If people fail to respond to the threats, some believe it opens the door to significantly harder enforcement.

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