Big UK ISPs Agree Voluntary Internet Piracy Warning Letters Scheme

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By Mark Jackson, ISPreview UK | July 19th, 2014

The Government, Rights Holders and four of the country’s largest broadband ISPs, including Virgin Media, BT, TalkTalk and Sky Broadband, have resolved their differences and announced the launch of a new “education programme” to help combat Internet piracy (copyright infringement) by sending warning letters to customers suspected of sharing “illegal” copyright content via File Sharing (P2P) networks.

The new industry-led Creative Content UK initiative, which is a product of the earlier closed-door Voluntary Copyright Alert Programme (VCAP) negotiations (here and here) between ISPs and both the Motion Picture Association (MPA) and British Phonographic Industry (BPI), aims to “send millions of educational notices” to those detected by copyright owners infringing via “unlawful” peer-to-peer file-sharing (curiously the Government uses both the term “illegal” and “unlawful” in the same announcement; the former is criminal and the latter a civil offence).

The scheme will be seen as an alternative to the long-delayed Digital Economy Act (DEAct), which became law in 2010 but has subsequently been slowed by a series of legal squabbles (e.g. BT and TalkTalk’s demand for a Judicial Review), political disagreements, concerns over the reliability of IP address based evidence (even good data only identifies the bill payer and might not be the perpetrator on shared networks) and cost concerns.

Never the less a new Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) between the various parties has now officially been signed, which will be accompanied by a campaign to help promote legal entertainment online. Apparently at least part of this 3-year programme will be funded by £3.5 million from the Government’s own business (BIS), media (DCMS) and Intellectual Property Office (IPO).

It’s currently unclear whether the previous proposal, which would have seen Rights Holders contribute £750k to each of the major ISPs in order to help them set-up the new VCAP system (plus £75k per year to assist with running costs), is still intact.

Sajid Javid, Culture Secretary, said:

Copyright is one of the foundations the UK economy is built on. Our creative industries contribute £8 million to the UK economy every hour and we must ensure these businesses can protect their investments.

The alert programme shows industry working together to develop solutions to this threat to our creative industries. It will play a central role in raising awareness of copyright and pointing people toward legal ways to access content, and I welcome this effort.”

Geoff Taylor, CEO of the BPI, added:

It’s a wonderful time to be a music fan – you can listen to almost any song ever released, instantly, wherever you are. But not everyone is familiar with all the different ways to do this – whether for free or from a paid service – while at the same time making sure the artist is also fairly rewarded.

This landmark initiative marks the first time that entertainment companies, broadband providers and the government have come together in a major campaign to engage consumers through their passion for music, film, TV and other content and to support them in enjoying it safely and legally online. It should mark a real step forward for digital entertainment in the UK.”

As before the new system will work by Rights Holders tracking the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses of suspected Internet pirates over public P2P networks, where unlawful torrents are often shared for new TV shows, movies, software and video games. Any addresses that match to the relevant UK ISPs would then be notified to that provider, which will take on the responsibility for informing any related customers.

The letters themselves will contain language that escalates in severity but this won’t include threats. Instead affected customers will be given advice to help them find “compelling, legal alternatives” (e.g. Spotify, NOW TV, Netflix etc.) and no further action will be taken if the warnings are ignored. We hope to gain a copy of the first template for this letter in the not too distant future.

However this approach faces the same minefield as past attempts, not least with the fact that IP addresses are an inherently unreliable method of identifying infringers. Related addresses can easily be redirected, spoofed and any small discrepancy in the Rights Holders logs could create problems with matching an address to the correct customer (several law firms [e.g. ACS:Law] ran into this difficulty when attempting to prosecute alleged offenders).

Readers with long memories will recall that we’ve been down the voluntary path once before and indeed today’s agreement sounds a lot like the one that was first made in June 2008 (here), albeit with mixed results due to concerns over its cost and effectiveness (here). At the time BT complained that many of the IP address it received could not be matched to their customers and that those they contacted were never taken to court, which meant the ISP didn’t “know whether they were actually guilty of infringement“.

Naturally the Government, which will be mindful about next year’s spring General Election (irritating millions of potential voters is never a good plan), might be attempting to tweak the timings in their favour. For example, the semi-separate education programme will launch before spring 2015, although interestingly there doesn’t appear to be a firm date for the warning letters which are seemingly expected to launch at a later date (the last official statement before today’s announcement talked about it being introduced “before the end of the year“).

It’s perhaps telling that the Government’s announcement contained no quotes from any of the ISPs. Last year Virgin Media responded to the original proposal by describing it as “unworkable“, while TalkTalk pointed out that the idea would have required them to create a database of repeat offenders and at the time it was felt that this might be illegal under the Data Protection Act (i.e. ISPs can only retain personal details where they are needed for commercial purposes). At the time of writing we have not been able to clarify what’s changed.