Illegal peer-to-peer sharing of movies, music and software is currently estimated to comprise more than half the world's Internet traffic - and copyright holders are up in arms, saying that CD, movie and software sales are taking a devastating hit from the quick, convenient and anonymous piracy options the broadband age has opened up. Now, the UK is considering legislation that would see suspected illegal file sharers cut off altogether by their ISPs - despite the fact that the European Parliament recently rejected a similar plan from France, on the grounds that it contravened the modern citizen's fundamental right to access the Internet.
Information is free in the Internet Age
Music sharing has long been an issue for record companies - back in the 1980s and 90s, though, volumes were small enough to be negligible; yes, you could dub a cassette or burn a CD, but most of this was fairly small-scale, at least in developed countries.
But with the age of ubiquitous broadband, one thing has become clear to Internet users: if you can chop something into ones and zeros, you can get it for free if you look hard enough. Books, music, software, high-def movies - they're all out there. And the stream of piracy has become a raging torrent in the broadband age, if you'll pardon the pun.
Consumers are used to information on the Internet being free, and that has quickly extended beyond text content; as data speeds increase, even the biggest media and software files are quick, easy and pretty much anonymous to download.
To catch a pirate
But when we say "pretty much anonymous," that's not the full story. There are a few ways that you can be identified if you're engaging in illegal file sharing. For one, your computer's IP address can be noted when you visit one of the many thousands of websites devoted to indexing peer-to-peer file sharing links.
Furthermore, your ISP can identify easily enough which bits of data you're downloading and uploading are likely to be peer-to-peer sharing. Now, P2P sharing in and of itself isn't an illegal act - it's only a problem if you're sharing copyright material. And that's much more difficult for the ISP to work out. But given that the vast majority of P2P traffic (and most likely, the vast majority of ALL internet traffic) is pushing illegal copies around, it's fairly easy for an ISP to single out which of its customers are likely to be engaging in a lot of P2P piracy.
RIAA crackdowns in the USA
In the United States, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) has aggressively pursued individual file-sharers by subpoenaing ISPs all around the country to identify piracy suspects, claiming that file sharing is responsible for the massive drop in CD sales in the last few years. In a number of high-profile court cases, the RIAA has won massive financial payments from file-sharers - take Joel Tenenbaum for example.
The Boston PhD student was found to have wilfully distributed a "mixtape" of 30 songs through the Kazaa network - and was ordered in July to pay a whopping US$675,000, or $22,500 per song - to the major record labels he'd infringed against. And while "DJ Joel" is a well-known example, he's hardly alone, and his bankrupting penalty is far from the biggest the RIAA has won.
Still, all that this legal action seemed to achieve was to rally a passionate and vocal opposition to the RIAA, not to mention a whole lot of bad blood directed at the record companies themselves - thus, the RIAA has backed off on the targeting of individuals, at least for the time being.
Britain's solution: off with their connections!
Across the pond in the UK, the government is considering proposals from copyright industry representatives that punishes offenders from a different angle. As part of the upcoming Digital Economy bill, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills has announced it is considering following France's lead and implementing a law which would see suspected illegal file-sharers given two written warnings before having their Internet connection suspended or cut off.
The French plan, incidentally, was derailed by European Parliament, who ruled 407-57 that cutting off access to the Internet was effectively a violation of the fundamental rights of European citizens.
So it remains to be seen how Britain will deal with the flood of complaints the move is sure to inspire. For starters, the law could be seen to be punishing mainly the lowest-level file sharers, as folks who are seriously into file sharing have already worked out how to encrypt the streams of data, spoof their IP addresses and generally make themselves very difficult to detect.
Then there's the issue that when one Internet connection is cut off, more than just one person could be affected. Entire families could be dropped off the Web because Junior has downloaded a few movies. Worse still, big time pirates could conceivably find ways to use innocent third parties' connections to go about their business, and get them banned.
Furthermore, the ISP companies desperately don't want to be drawn into a situation where they're responsible for spying on and punishing their clients - and this kind of law would have to be enacted at the ISP level. Not only would it be a costly and technically challenging task, it would have a nasty effect on customer relationships.
Whether or not this bill passes, the UK government has committed itself to reducing piracy by at least 70% - which would be a massive win for content copyright holders, given that illegal file sharing is believed to represent more than half the total Internet traffic in the UK.
It will be fascinating to see how this plays out across the globe, with governments everywhere under intense pressure from recording and film industry groups to protect their members from the financial losses they believe file sharing is inflicting upon them. On the other side is the issue of free, uncensored and private access to the greatest information (and free stuff) resource the world has ever seen.