UK Mulls Cutting File Sharers’ Internet Service

U.K. file sharing

What is to be done about the pirates?

Copyright owners around the world have for years been appealing to trade groups, courts, policymakers and just about anyone who will listen to their pleas to help curb the misappropriation of their work over the Internet.

They have evidently found a sympathetic ear in the United Kingdom, whose government this morning issued a set of ideas for how to combat digital piracy, including the controversial proposal to shut down the Internet service of serial infringers.

The U.K. Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) is seeking comments on piracy-deterrence methods that could be included in the proposed Digital Economy Bill parliament is set to consider.

Among other things, that bill could authorize Ofcom, the U.K.’s communications regulator, to direct Internet service providers to send notices to suspected infringers, block access to certain sites and degrade or suspend service to users who ignored repeated warning notices.

“Technology and consumer behavior is fast-changing and it’s important that Ofcom has the flexibility to respond quickly to deal with unlawful file-sharing,” Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms said in a statement.

The government’s current call for comments stems from a report on peer-to-peer infringement BIS issued in June. But Timms said that after the initial wave of comments came in, the government felt it might need to allow for more forceful mechanism to combat digital piracy.

So with today’s announcement came an explanatory note (available here in PDF format) from BIS, saying that “we are considering the case for adding into the list of technical measures the power, as a last resort, to suspend a subscriber’s account.”

On its face, the U.K. proposal doesn’t sound much different from much different from the policy the Recording Industry Association of America announced last December. At the time, the group said it would no longer sue individual infringers, and would instead partner with ISPs to monitor their network traffic for illicit file-sharing and send out notices to suspected infringers, holding out the threat of eventually shutting off subscribers’ Internet service.

Among prominent members of the “copyleft,” such as Public Knowledge, that idea went over like a lead balloon. “Shock and awe,” Gigi Sohn, the group’s founder, derisively labeled the RIAA’s so-called “graduated response” program.

So far ISPs, well aware of the image problem that would arise from an open alliance with the RIAA and the privacy concerns that would come in tow, have downplayed their involvement in the copyright-monitoring program.

On the policy side, the copyright debate in the United States has been in a quiet period in recent months. Several lawmakers have signaled their plans to initiate (or, in some cases, revive) legislation to shore up the country’s copyright laws in the face of the peer-to-peer threat, while President Obama has yet to appoint a copyright czar, as was ordered by a law enacted last October.

But in Britain, policymakers appear to be approaching the issue with a fresh urgency.

The government’s original proposal had planned for Ofcom to undertake a thorough review of its copyright policy, with the earliest changes to take effect in 2012. But BIS said this morning that “might be too long to wait given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy.”

The government is accepting comments on its proposals through Sept. 29.

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