Will ISPs agree to the BPI’s calls to police the Net?

The music industry has at last recruited internet service providers to help in its battle against illegal downloading, although observers suggest the support of the “big six” brands is merely a way of staving off legislation.

The BPI, formerly known as British Phonographic Industry, has partnered with the Government and BT, Virgin Media, Orange, Tiscali, BSkyB and Carphone Warehouse ISP brand TalkTalk in a trial scheme which polices illegal download abuses.

The BPI, which represents the British recorded music business, says there are about 6 million illegal file sharers, costing the industry over £100m a year.

Yet observers suggest there are tensions ahead between the BPI and the ISPs. Some ISPs are reluctant to agree to extreme punishment for persistent offenders for fear it may impact customer experience, churn and, ultimately, their bottom lines. They insist that the move is intended to “educate”, rather than punish.

Meanwhile, the Government has threatened to legislate as early as next April if no progress is made.

During the three-month trial, letters will be sent to customers suspected of illegal downloading. However, and contrary to speculation, ISPs are under no obligation to freeze customers’ accounts, cut their access speeds or disconnect abusers from their service.

ISPs will also provide alternative, legal, free-download music sites to encourage consumers to change their behaviour.

And, if the BPI wants details of repeat offenders, it will need a court order. Media regulator Ofcom also plans “continued dialogue” over the period, to look at how to tackle problem offenders.

Big brother

But some are against policing the internet. Cliff Fluent, a partner at media specialist law company Lewis Silkin, says: “There is a general political push against regulating the internet. It’s a carrot-and-stick approach. The threat was enough to bring everyone to the table, as it looked unlikely that everyone would do it.”

ISPs face a conundrum: as there are no rules about disconnecting persistent offenders – and none about sharing details between providers – customers are free to switch from one service to another.

A spokesman from Carphone Warehouse’s TalkTalk says the company has only agreed the deal because it does not require customer details to be revealed and it does not have to disconnect anyone.

He says: “Privacy and customer rights are very important. The only way we will give out information is if we receive a court order.” The spokesman says TalkTalk intends to “put the customer first”.

Orange is also using the same tactic. An Orange spokesman says: “Our position has always been that we won’t give customer details to content owners unless a legal writ forces us to do so.”

Wrong direction?

Another source suggests that the music industry is going the wrong way about accommodating consumers, saying that the big downloaders are the keen music fans – those the industry needs. “They should be embracing them,” he adds.

But the BPI suggests harsher steps are taken to tackle persistent offenders, such as a letter, account suspension and the threat of losing internet access. However, a spokesman at the BPI adds: “We don’t want to be in a position where we are asking the ISPs for details.”

The body argues that those who illegally share files are “stealing”. It wants to encourage those who download music to understand the “value” of music.

Many believe changing behaviour is really only down to education. Fluent says: “There will always be people who do break the law. People are aware, but they do not know they are being watched. This is all about changing behaviour.”

ISPs will be hoping that education is the answer: an altogether more complex solution may be needed if the BPI’s calls for further policing are answered.

Kate O’Flaherty

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