Government hints at ISP file-sharing crackdown

An official has warned that legislation may follow if ISPs and rights holders fail to tackle file-sharing of copyrighted material voluntary

The UK government may crack down on ISPs over illegal file-sharing, a senior government official has suggested.

Speaking to the BBC, Lord Triesman — the parliamentary under-secretary for innovation, universities and skills — said it was likely that "there are going to be successful voluntary schemes between the creative industries and ISPs" over the issue. However, he added, a failure to reach such agreements could lead the government to legislate on the matter.

Many peer-to-peer (P2P) services are available which allow users to share any kind of file, and many of those are copyrighted material. ISPs in the UK have steadfastly maintained their standpoint that, because they do not host any of the material in question, they are not liable for it.

A statement on the website of the Internet Services Providers' Association (ISPA) claims that ISPs cannot monitor or record the type of information passed over their network. "ISPs are no more able to inspect and filter every single packet passing across their network than the Post Office is able to open every envelope," the statement adds. "ISPs deal with many more packets of data each day than postal services, and data-protection legislation actually prevents ISPs from looking at the content of the packets sent."

However, Triesman said on Wednesday that "where people have registered music as an intellectual property, I believe we will be able to match data banks of that music to music going out and being exchanged on the net". He clarified his statement by suggesting that the government was not intending to go after "14-year-olds who shared music" — reminiscent of the approach taken by music bosses in the US — but rather those who distributed other people's copyrighted material via P2P for profit.

Telecoms lawyer Danny Preiskel told on Thursday that he was not surprised by Triesman's comments. "There is a lot of lobbying from major rights holders," he said. "It is hugely important that ISPA and the industry stay very alert."

Preiskel added that the high-profile video site YouTube, which has come under fire for hosting copyrighted material, was bringing the issue to the fore. Despite the fact that ISPs are not connected with such services — or with P2P service providers — he warned that they may become "secondary targets" in the battle over intellectual property rights.

In July the Conservative leader David Cameron made a speech in which he reasoned that, since ISPs were able to monitor their traffic for illegal material such as child pornography, there was no reason why they could not do the same for copyrighted material. Around the same time, a Belgian court ordered an ISP in that country, Scarlet, to do just that using systems from a company called Audible Magic. Scarlet has since appealed against the court's decision.