Sunday, 21 March 2010

When file-sharing and politics collide – the Digital Economy Bill

The Digital Economy Bill, brainchild of Sith Lord Mandelson, has recently been passed by the Lords, and must now pass through the same processes in the Commons before gaining Queenie's squiggle and being passed into law. With any luck, Parliament will run out of time (especially if Gordy B calls an election sooner than predicted) before the legislation can be passed, but it's looking likely that the legislation will be rushed through before Labour are thrown out. The legislation has not been particularly widely reported on in the media until Panorama's programme last Monday, suitably titled - 'Are the Net Police Coming for you?'. Sad technophiles like myself have been eyeing this Bill for a while with increasing concern about its draconian terms and the way it threatens to trample on everyone except big business.

The Bill plans to make Internet Service Providers - ISPs - (like BT and Virgin Media) cut off or throttle the speed of customers thought to be illegally downloading copyrighted material after they've received three warning letters, and it could also result in websites with large amounts of illegal material - this could even include Youtube - being blocked in the UK. The latter of these terms was a Liberal Democrat House of Lords amendment, put forward to try to prevent people having to be disconnected. It's also important to note that NuLab speak doesn't include the word 'Disconnect', so they use 'Suspended' instead, which sounds far less harsh, but in reality just means the same as disconnected, except no-one physically comes to your house to unplug you - your connection is cut off, leaving you unable to access the Internet.

Now, the main problem with this is that Internet users can be cut off without trial - so that's punishment without a legal hearing being taken. I understand that illegal file sharing is against the law, but this legislation won't hit those who make profit from it and therefore, if you believe Mandy and his business pals, hurt the economy. Those who know what they're doing and do it for profit will be able to get around this easily, as the Panorama programme showed this. Anonymity systems can be used to make your PC look like it's in another country, and it can be swapped around to other places so it doesn't draw attention. There are also IP proxies which can make your computer identify itself as being elsewhere, and change its IP regularly to avoid attracting attention.

This Bill will also result in innocent people being cut off, even if we presume that the system for identifying illegal file sharing or downloading is fail-safe. More and more people are now using wireless networks, which, whilst relatively easy to secure, aren't fortresses of impenetrability. It'd be fairly easy for someone to drive along a suburban road in their looking for an unsecured network or using cracking software to guess the passwords of others. I'm particularly thinking about the elderly, who may have been pushed to get online by the Government's relentless movement of services and information online, but who aren't too savvy at making sure their wireless network is secure. If someone connects to their wireless and downloads files illegally, they'll be receiving a nasty letter in the post warning them to stop it, or face disconnection. If it continues to happen, they could then have their speed slowed down to a snail's pace, or cut off completely.

Furthermore, the Bill's terms could also punish entire families for the action of one person. During my younger days, like many teens, I was part-time criminal; I used to occasionally download music illegally from LimeWire. Oh, the shame, the shame of it all. Nowadays, I am rehabilitated, so all my music is purchased on CDs from Amazon or other online retailers (I don't like paying for MP3 files - I'd rather have a disk, case, and all that jazz if I'm going be shelling out money.) However, had the Bill been in place during my young and wild days of criminality, my entire family could have been cut off from the 'Net for the actions of just one person in the household - that doesn't seem very fair, does it? It's not like parents can really keep an eye on their children either; Net Nanny-type programmes don't tend to log things like that, and children tend to be far more tech-savvy than their parents.

Free wireless access to more people has also been growing in recent years, even the dull and ancient Hertford, a town nearby me, is getting a pilot of free public wireless ('After speedy broadband, free WiFi hits the streets - Hertfordshire Mercury, Thursday 11 March 2010). However, such schemes as this, and indeed anywhere which provides free public Internet connections - including Internet Cafes and even libraries - could face being cut off due to the actions of some users who download or upload copyrighted files illegally.

As some artists point out, illegal file-sharing can have a positive impact on the creative industries rather than damaging them. Today, I watched a bit of a film on Youtube that someone had uploaded, and I thought it was so smashing that I then ordered the DVD from Amazon. Had I not been able to see the 20ish minutes of film, I wouldn't have even known it existed, let alone have been impressed enough to buy it.

Finally, here's Dan Bull, articulating the mutual hatred of Peter Mandelson that everyone secretly or not-so-secretly harbours:

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