British proposal to cut Web access to copyright infringers draws protest

Proposed clampdown is heavy-handed, disproportionate, say opponents, and some ISPs agree

A British government proposal that would require Internet service providers to cut off Web access to those found to be illegally downloading copyrighted music and video is evoking protest in that country.

Critics call the proposal a step in the wrong direction that would put the country in violation of its own laws and those in the European Union.

Britain's Department for Business Innovation and Skills on Tuesday said it was proposing legislation that would force ISPs to suspend the accounts of subscribers who are found to be illegally downloading copyrighted music and video over the Internet.

The proposal toughens an earlier set of department recommendations released in June. Those proposals had called for ISPs to implement a graduated response for handling subscribers who were identified as copyright infringers by rights holders. With the graduate response program , which is similar to a proposal by the Recording Industry Association of America, ISPs would be required to notify subscribers of copyright violations and eventually slow down their Internet connections if they fail to stop the practice.

The new proposal would add to those measures by requiring ISPs to pull the plug on those who fail to stop infringing activity.

The proposal, which needs to be approved by the British Parliament, was introduced after responses from copyright holders who claimed that a graduated response was not enough, the BIS said in its statement.

"Some stakeholders have argued strongly that none of those technical measures is powerful enough to have a significant deterrent effect on infringing behavior," the department said. The added measure will give regulators a "full tool-kit from which to select the most appropriate measure should technical measures be deemed necessary," the statement said. The statement goes on to say the department recognizes the seriousness of the proposed sanctions and stresses that measures need to be taken to ensure it is applied "very much as a last resort."

Even so, the proposal has stirred up considerable concerns among supporters of open access. The Open Rights Group, a London-based civil rights group said the proposal represented "heavy-handed intervention" and directly contravened the government's position on universal Internet access. "The result of these proposals is likely to be protest, challenges and public arguments in the run-up to the general election," the group said on its Web site.

Britain's Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) expressed its concern over the proposed changed. In a statement, the trade group, which represents major ISPs in the country, said it was "disappointed" by the development and would soon be raising its concerns with the government.

"ISPs and consumer groups consider disconnection of users to be a disproportionate response," a viewpoint supported by others in the European Parliament, the group said.

And TalkTalk, one of Britain's largest broadband service providers, warned in a statement made to the Guardian that the move would likely "breach fundamental human rights." The paper quoted a spokesman for TalkTalk as saying the government had "caved in under pressure from powerful lobbyists in the content industry."

A move to introduce similar legislation in France has met with near identical opposition and has yet to be adopted more than two years after it was first proposed.

Many believe it highly unlikely that similar legislation will be introduced in the U.S. Civil Rights groups, however, are keeping a wary eye on the RIAA, which has been trying to convince lawmakers of the need to get ISPs to implement at least a graduated response process to deal with frequent copyright infringers.

In December, the RIAA announced that it was stopping its strategy of mass John Doe lawsuits against music pirates. The group said at the time that it would instead focus on persuading ISPs to voluntarily implement a graduated response program for dealing with chronic copyright infringers.

Under the program the RIAA would notify participating ISPs when it discovers their customers engaging in what it claims are illegal downloading activities. Depending on the agreements between the RIAA and the ISP, service providers would either forward copyright infringement notices from the RIAA to subscribers or notify customers about the notices and ask them to cease and desist.

The program provides escalating sanctions against repeat offenders, but it is unclear what those sanctions might be, nor is it clear how many ISPs have signed up for the program. In December, the RIAA had claimed it was working with New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo and several leading but unnamed ISPs on the effort.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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