Friday, 27 November 2009

Internet Disconnection

The British government recently introduced a bill via the Queens speech known as the "Digital Economy Bill". This bill contained provisions for the arbitrary disconnection of those accused by content industry bodies of copyright infringement from the internet. So what exactly is all the fuss about? why do I care?

The first few clauses of the Digital Economy Bill are in essence a list of obligations that ISPs (Internet Service Providers) must follow. These include various information which must be kept about internet usage of their customers (you) and an obligation to forward any 'strikes' (accusations, warnings and threats) that rights holders wish to send you. These 'strikes' are to be sent solely on the word of the rights holders. All they need to provide is an IP address and a time. There is no requirement for these accusations to be evidenced or even be on reasonable grounds. There is no penalty for wrong, careless or even malicious accusations. So there we go, no evidence required what so ever and only the rights holders have any say in the matter. The proposel then provides for those with strikes against their names to be permanently disconnected, bandwidth throttled or have specific sites blocked at a later date. Only a single appeal is allowed and that will be descided by a single unnamed person. There is no opportunity for a trial.

But surely there is no reason to think that false accusations would be made except as an occasional freak incident? Well, these rights holders and their representative bodies have a long history of sending out false accusations and threats of legal action to private residents in the USA. Some innocent people (some even without an internet connection) have paid up to settle the matter, purely out of fear as a result. The phrase "The Innocent have nothing to fear" has presaged so many atrocities, injustices and immoral concerns that anyone hearing is should experience a shudder.

Then there are some technical concerns. How do you distinguish a pirate from someone sharing legitimate material over P2P (for eg, a linux cd image or some creative commons music over bit torrent) for a 'pirate'? Much of the traffic on P2P networks is encrypted by default, so its content is very difficult to determine. The way 'pirates' are usually 'detected' is by use of 'honey pots' which log the IP addresses of any macdhienes which try to communicate with them. The most likely scenario I can see is that the lists of IP addresses and time stamps from these honey-trap machines will simply be sent to the ISPs who will have to send out the threatening letters and record a 'strike' against those users. Simply having your IP on one of theses lists is far from proof of any wrongdoing.

Another technical concern, almost all of us use wireless networking or some form of shared network. Did you know that networks using WEP encryption can be broken in to in a few seconds. Even the best WPA encryption can be broken in to given a little patience, bad password choice or poor technical configuration. This meand that your neighbours or a passer by in a car or with a wifi enabled portable device can fairly easily gain access to the majority of wireless networks down any street and start downloading material and getting innocent people on the 'strike' list. You also have to consider, is it reasonable to expect connection owners to trust all their house-mates, friends, family or community? According to the bill you are responsible if you 'allow' another to commit an act of piracy over your connection. Where does this leave libraries, universities, coffee shops, employers or simply community spirited individuals? (on a side note, this is worth a read)

Next up is the issue of collective punishment. So lets ignore all the issues above and assume you, the actually owner of the network, really have infringed copyringt and you have been disconnected. This is the best case scenario for disconnection under the bill. So you could argue that you have committed an offence and been punished, so tough cheese. However, you have to consider that now your sun can't do his homework or maintain his social life, your wife can't do her on-line banking, bill payments, entertainment or continue her interest in local politics. Your foreign student lodger is no longer getting a service they though was included in their rent, communicate with their family, continue their language course and keep up to date on their university studies. Surely this is both disproportionate and unfair those who are 'collateral damage'?

Lastly, for I fear I may be loosing readers through the length of this screed, there is a clause inserted in this bill which would allow the appropriate Secretary of State (Lord Mandelson as of now) to essentially alter a large part of the copyright law of the country at will. This allows legislation to be altered covering an number of intellectual property issues without consultation of any publicly accountable body such as parliament. Not very democratic I'd think you'll agree.

If you agree with me that this is a bad thing and want to do something:
  1. If you are a British citizen the sign the petition.
  2. Tell Lord Mandelson what you think and add your voice to this web-wall.
  3. Contact your MP - after all, 'they work for you'.
  4. Spread the word - Blog, tweet, link and talk.
  5. Support the work or organisations like Open Rights Group and EFF-Europe.
If you think I'm wrong or have spotted any mistakes or inaccuracies then please let me know in the comments.

Here's a humorous musical open letter on the issue.
Ars Technica have an article which makes clear some of the ways the innocent can easily end up listed a pirates.
panGloss is an excellent cyber-law bolg, which has many articles on this issue.

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