Mobile industry 'cannot identify pirates'

Identifying unlawful file-sharers to comply with proposed law is not currently possible for mobile operators, industry chief says
Written by David Meyer, Contributor

Mobile operators are unable to comply with proposed anti-copyright theft legislation that requires them to identify unlawful file-sharers, the head of an industry body has said.

In the wake of the Digital Economy Bill, published on Friday, Mobile Broadband Group chief Hamish MacLeod told ZDNet UK that the government's plans to force ISPs to hand over customer data to rights holders and potentially disconnect persistent infringers would apply to mobile operators. However, he said, operators have a "problem with identification [of unlawful downloaders] to the telephone".

Whereas fixed-line ISPs map one IP address to each subscriber, "in the mobile space that IP address belongs to the mobile operator", MacLeod said on Monday.

"[Operators] are not allocating one IP address per customer," MacLeod said. "They can't backtrack, as things stand, to identify the customer. They would be required to build the databases that would be able to do that mapping, and that would be very costly."

According to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) consultation that preceded the bill, the development of the databases would cost the whole industry around £35m, or £7m per operator on average.

MacLeod said the cost of these databases would, under the terms of the bill, be shared between the operators and rights holders. However, he said operators should "ideally not" have to bear any of this cost themselves, and the cost-sharing arrangement would need to be discussed with officials and rights-holders.

Fixed-line ISPs have already voiced their opposition to the government's plans, partly based on unwillingness to disconnect users without trial, and partly based on the idea that they should have to bear some of the costs associated with helping rights holders launch civil suits against infringers.

Whatever happens, no disconnections would take place until 2011 at the earliest, pending the passage of the bill and a subsequent one-year period during which non-technical measures would be tried out, to see if they sufficiently reduce unlawful file-sharing.

However, MacLeod said, mobile operators do not expect to have to hand over customer data or disconnect users at all, because not many people file-share copyrighted material over mobile broadband connections due to their relatively low speeds.

According to the terms of the bill, ISPs will only be forced to comply with the government's copyright crackdown if a certain — as yet undefined — threshold of unlawful file-sharing is identified on their networks.

"Our expectation is that we will not meet the threshold in the first instance because people are doing this [unlawful file-sharing] on fixed internet connections," MacLeod said. "If there's a low level of activity to go on, we would not expect [to have to comply]".

ZDNet UK has asked all the major UK operators for their reactions to the Digital Economy Bill's copyright clauses, but only Vodafone has responded.

"If Vodafone comes into scope (i.e. there are sufficient notifications to merit inclusion) then anonymised customer data will have to be passed on," a spokesperson for the operator said in an email.

The absence of an infrastructure for identifying people who unlawfully download copyrighted content over mobile networks is not the only problem facing the crackdown, according to telecoms analyst Dean Bubley, of Disruptive Analysis.

"You've got anonymous prepay as well," Bubley told ZDNet UK on Monday. "Although in some countries they force people to register prepay cards, that's a pretty huge break [from UK regulations]."

Bubley pointed out that 3 and other operators that sell "shrinkwrapped" 3G dongles and SIM cards with data capabilities largely serve the very people whom the government is trying to get online.

"On one hand, the government's trying to encourage internet connectivity — bridging the digital divide — but a lot of people in lower socioeconomic groups are on prepay, and the vast majority are anonymous," Bubley said, adding that it was technically possible to cut off a mobile subscriber's internet access without disconnecting their voice and text communications.

Bubley also noted potential issues arising from new bandwidth-sharing smartphone applications such as JoikuBoost, which lets users combine their 3G connections — irrespective of which operators the individual users subscribe to — over Wi-Fi.

"You're not only sharing your Wi-Fi — it's load-balancing across multiple connections," Bubley said. "You can, in theory, have four mobile broadband connections and the four smartphones or PCs turn themselves into a collective hotspot.

"Let's say there's an iPhone app that does network or P2P connection-sharing between multiple uplinks. You try figuring out who's downloaded what from whom."

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