ISPs, experts and digital rights groups reacted swiftly on Tuesday to government proposals that would see illegal file-sharers disconnected from their internet service.
The Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) proposed on Tuesday that disconnection should be considered in the case of those who persistently share copyrighted material online.
The proposals were revealed during an ongoing BIS consultation that was already considering measures to combat peer-to-peer piracy. Lord Carter, the author of the Digital Britain report that kicked off the consultation, had rejected disconnection as a sanction in the report.
Rob Bratby, a partner at the law firm Olswang, pointed out that the government had "changed their position on which they're consulting midway through the consultation, which is not best practice".
From a legal standpoint, the viability of the government's new proposals hinges on the passage of an amendment to Europe's legal framework for telecommunications, Bratby said. Arguments between European parliamentarians and telecoms ministers over this amendment, which calls for internet connectivity to be recognised as a fundamental right, have sidelined the matter into conciliation.
"If that amendment remains in place, the UK government will be unable to enact this proposal," Bratby said.
He noted that the measure, if introduced, could lead to a file-sharer's family or housemates being cut off from the internet when a shared service is disconnected. That could prompt a human rights case, he said, but added that "whether it succeeds is another matter".
Another potential problem is intruders who piggyback on a wireless connection, according to Sophos security consultant Graham Cluley. "People who illegally download material that they haven't paid for aren't going to have any qualms about using someone else's internet connection," he said.
The measure could create "innocent victims" and give real pirates a plausible defence, he added.
Cluley also noted that businesses could be affected by a file-sharing crackdown, asking: "If the alleged illegal downloads appear to originate from the workplace — will the entire company be disconnected from the net?"
Campaigners at the Open Rights Group said they will be making an official complaint about the new proposals, which closely followed a meeting between Lord Mandelson and film and music tycoon David Geffen. "This policy U-turn seems to have taken place as the result of a few private conversations. We will be making an official complaint about the shoddiness of this consultation process, which seems to have broken the government's own rules," the group's executive director Jim Killock said in a statement.
"It smacks of a knee-jerk reaction at a time when copyright infringement is reducing and online revenues are increasing. Mandelson risks bringing copyright into disrepute," Killock added.
The ISP Association (ISPA), an industry group, said in a statement that it was "disappointed by the proposal to force ISPs to suspend users' accounts". It noted that ISPs and consumer groups consider disconnection of users to be a "disproportionate response".
The industry group also disagreed with the government's proposal that the business secretary — currently Lord Mandelson — should be the one to decide which technical measures are "necessary and appropriate" for use as sanctions against illegal file-sharers.
"ISPA would be concerned if, as is proposed, the secretary of state were given the power to determine when a system that included imposing technical sanctions on users should be introduced," the group said. "This would politicise the process and would be a negative step."
However, Moneysupermarket.com called the proposals "a timely move from the government".
"Many people may be unaware that the way they are downloading is illegal, and this announcement should prompt people to think before they use an illegal site," the price-comparison site's broadband manager James Parker said in a statement.
"Although there are many illegal sites, there are also plenty of legitimate places to download from such as iTunes or Spotify — which allow users to legally stream music from a vast library — and these kinds of services should also help to stop illegal downloaders."