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UK ISPs as piracy police?

The Times of London had a remarkable story Tuesday about a UK government proposal to require ISPs to monitor their users' downloads and cut off service to those who repeatedly access pirated movies and movies. This is the entertainment industry's Holy Grail, or at least this year's version of it -- a set-it-and-forget-it approach to combating online piracy.

The story doesn't reveal how ISPs would be expected to identify infringing activity, possibly because the government hasn't gotten that far in its thinking. Yet that is one of the most challenging aspects of the issue, particularly in the EU, where data-privacy laws are tougher than in the U.S. and many other parts of the world. As the BBC reported today, the ISPs' trade group believes it's illegal to inspect the data traffic passing through the Net.

In the U.S., two of the biggest broadband suppliers have taken opposing positions on the issue. AT&T executives have said they're working with content owners on ways to detect and stop piracy, but they've also said they don't want to inspect each packet or monitor every customer. Instead, AT&T engineers have talked about trying to spot traffic patterns that suggest someone is downloading illegally, then taking a closer look at that person's data streams. A top Verizon executive, on the other hand, has said his company isn't interested in monitoring its network for infringements.

There are other ways for ISPs to work with copyright owners to deter piracy. One example is relaying threatening messages to account holders that the movie or music companies have tracked on file-sharing networks. That's what French ISPs have agreed to do, essentially, at the government's urging. And at least some ISPs like the idea of knocking heavy infringers off their network because of the prodigious amounts of traffic they generate, which can degrade the network's performance and drive up complaints.

While there's no defense for illegal downloading, the idea of governments ordering ISPs to monitor e-mails, IMs and Web browsing is uncomfortably Orwellian. And even if ISPs can address the privacy concerns effectively, there are questions about whether the monitoring technology they choose will be sophisticated enough to recognize authorized p2p activity (e.g., using Vuze) and legitimate uses of copyrighted material (e.g., a snippet of a movie clip in a film-review podcast). Finally, with the Internet rapidly becoming the dominant communications medium, it seems critical that ISPs take a neutral stance on data. Blocking the transmission of bootlegged movies is hardly censorship, but once the infrastructure is in place to examine data as it passes through the network, what type of content becomes the next target?  

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Times editorial writer Jon Healey pens opinion pieces about a variety of business issues, and blogs about technologies that are changing the entertainment industry's business model.

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