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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

UK DEBill site blocking: Common sense alternatives - tough on crime, or tough on the causes of crime?

I'm going to take a different approach from others on this subject. I'm not going to get into the legal debate on the UK Digital Economy bill (Henceforth DE Bill) since this is a technical blog, not a political one, but am going to give a common-sense view on the subject that I hope no-one can reasonably argue with, explaining how technically it won't work, and what the real solution to the problem should be. A shorter, redrafted version of this was sent to my MP.

The proposed law (clause 18 specifically) that seems to have the general support of all UK political parties concerns me, and I'm not sure if we're really being given all the facts about how the conclusions have come to be put into effect. We're in the year 2010, and the way we have to deal with crimes related to technology and the internet has to be different from how we've dealt with crimes in the past. The companies who know and understand the internet (Various ISPs, Google etc) are opposed to the bill, because they know how pointless it will turn out to be.

The sections of the DE Bill relating to illegal downloads and the severing of internet connections used for such activities concern me on a couple of levels:


The concept of terminating someone's internet connection based on the
act they've used a protocol such as BitTorrent is absurd and unenforceable
for 3 reasons:

  • There are already technologies in place to mask where you're sharing from. With the risk of getting caught, you'll just increase use of those services (thus increasing overall internet traffic for no real benefit) and render accurate detection almost impossible.

  • As far as I can tell, there is no proposal for a reliable way to detect which downloads are legal, and which aren't. If, for education, I download 40 ISO images of different open-source operating systems a week I'm not doing anything illegal, but will it get me into trouble from the file sharing police?

  • If people know they'll get caught, they will use an unsecured WiFi connection (possibly overnight when the owner may not notice) and render the detection unreliable. The people who will suffer the risk are the less tech-savvy people who haven't got a secure configuration, and won't want the extra hassle. Will this push an older generation of non-technical internet users off the internet "just in case" if they receieve 'cease and desist' letters?

Besides, even if you solve all that, you don't stop people sending DVDs/BluRays of copied files to each other via the postal service.


The main thing (I guess) that people are concerned about with file sharing sites is multimedia streams - music / films / TV series. The argument about terminating internet connections doesn't seem to actually be a sensible solution to the problem of why people are file sharing.

The biggest difference in living in a digital age for corporations is finding ways to make money out of it. It took the music industry a while to move to using MP3s, but now that's where most of the market is. If people are file sharing and violating copyright then it should be up to the industries being affective to provide alternatives that people want to use, AND MARKET THEM TO US!

Personally, I don't file share music. Why? Because there is fundamentally very little point. I use legal ad-supported music streaming sites like (no compulsory registration, no software downloads) and I can listen to a wide range of music with a short advert at the start of each track. If I like an album enough I'll buy it, but I don't have to.

With such ad-supported streaming services I don't currently get the convenience of being able to take it with me, but that's not an insurmountable problem. The convergence of mobile devices means that tools like Spotify Mobile solve that problem (and if I'm getting it for free, I don't object to the stored copy being subject to DRM so I can't use it elsewhere). So with that sort of thing, why would people need to file share any more?

And I'm sorry for the music industry, but people file share BECAUSE IT'S CONVENIENT compared to the free legal options. Heck, the Opera browser even has a BitTorrent client built in, you click a .torrent file, and it starts downloading like any other download. If the industry wants people to stop file sharing, we need better alternatives. Where's the music industry pushing us to listen to their artists tracks on we7/spotify/ instead? How many people even know about these legal streaming sites compared to how many know about BitTorrent. THAT'S THE PROBLEM. Instead of addressing that problem, they just want to revoke our internet access, so we can't listen to anything.

With the Film industry I think it's even worse. If you were to download illegally you get a video stream of the film you want to watch. You click it, it plays the film. If you buy a DVD/BluRay, you have to watch through age restrictions, possibly trailers that can't be skipped, piracy warnings (which won't be in any pirated copy, so what's the point?), trailers and other nonsense that wastes your time. You pay money to a film company to get the film, the extras should be optional, and not the mandatory default. This image sums up that problem quite nicely. Please, by all means give me ads if I'm not paying, don't give me ads if I am. This complete nonsense of feeding me stuff I don't want when I've paid for something needs to stop, otherwise it's encouraging illegal downloads. And think about this - if I've legitimately bought a DVD, should I be penalised if I download a second copy from a peer-to-peer file sharing site purely to use it on my phone/media player?

Copy prevention is another thing that encourages piracy and illegal downloads. If you perform an illegal download it will be region/DRM free. You can put it on your PC, burn it to a DVD, transcode it for playback on your phone or personal media player. But if you pay for the film, you are not (thanks to DRM and region coding) generally allowed to do that, and therefore the end user experience is better for the pirates. To stop illegal downloading this is the problem you need to fix, not start banning internet connections. The media companies have to understand what people want, and allow me to do what I want with something I've paid them for. This is the correct solution to the problem of illegally downloading - work with the media corporations (who get the profits) to provide better solutions than the pirates! It's not rocket science is it? As a potential extra, how about allowing me to stream or download something I've bought legally?


There are some people that will never pay for media, maybe because they can't afford it or other reasons, and going after them is not productive, because they're not going to give the industry revenue if they're blocked. Worst case, they'll get someone, for example student accommodation where it's difficult to track back to a single user, to perform the downloads for them. But the industry needs to avoid alienating the people who are willing to pay for their services. Don't treat your customers like idiots who don't know what the alternatives are.

The bottom line is that for the media industries to survive they have to improve their own services, and make the accessible to their audience. One positive step is with an increasing number of movies and television programmes ("Flash Forward" being one example) being broadcast almost simultaneously across the world. That reduces the need for people to want to grab 'the latest' broadcasts from another country from file sharing sites. That's a SENSIBLE answer to the problem (even if it might make marketing more of a headache). ON another note, how about Sky/Virgin allowing me to subscribe on a true-channel basis for £2 or £3 a month to get just what I want instead of £18/month for a 'package'? I'd sign up to that! I'm sure I there are repeat file-sharing offenders who would too! Until we see more of these intelligent solutions to the issues the problem will not go away, and ultimately they will be forced into it, and the MPs will have allowed through a nonsensical law which will serve no practical purpose beyond increasing internet traffic.

Music / Film industry - it's over to you. Work with us to provide legal alternatives to what we want - if you know what people are illegally downloading, you know what people want.

P.S. Does anyone know where are the BPI getting their figures from in terms of the damage to the industry from illegal downloads?

EDIT (31/1/2011): At least now with the "On air, on sale" policy from EMI and Sony we don't have them encouraging piracy by not making tracks available, and hopefully the farce of the delayed UK release of Britney's 'Hold It Against Me' compared to the rest of the world (subsequently pulled back to only 1 week later) is the start of the industry realising that they can't just blame 'criminals' for piracy issues


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