Page last updated at 18:06 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 19:06 UK

Q&A: Disconnecting file-sharers

Eye and circuit board
ISPs could soon be asked to monitor the online activities of their users

The UK government has said it will disconnect persistent illegal file-sharers. The move is an apparent U-turn from suggestions made in the recent Digital Britain report.

What does this mean to me?

Nothing yet. The revelations reflect suggestions that have been made, not policies that have been decided. The Digital Britain report allowed for a consultation period until 2012 to establish whether active pursuit of persistent pirates is necessary.

Now the government is pressing for technical measures to be introduced sooner.

What are the principal issues?

The creative industries estimate that six million people regularly file-share copyright content without permission, costing the industries revenue that they cannot recoup.

In 2007, an estimated one billion music tracks and 98 million movies were shared illegally. It has been reported that more than half of all traffic on the net in the UK is content being shared illegally.

Pressure from the rights owners has been met with resistance from the ISPs and there is no sign of reduction in the amount of file-sharing.

The government is trying to decide the legal boundaries of responsibility, and taking the unusual step of making these suggestions in the middle of a consultation period reflects the complexity of the debate.

What do the Internet Service Providers say?

ISPs have long said they do not want to become the internet police, and have also pointed out that under the law as it stands they are mere conduits of the traffic on the net.

Many ISPs have signed up to a voluntary agreement that sees them send letters to users they suspect of sharing content illegally.

However, the ISPs also do not want to be seen as disconnecting their own users, and in light of the government's suggestions the umbrella group Internet Service Providers' Association said that it viewed disconnection as a "disproportionate response".

The full-time role of monitoring traffic on their networks would also have a financial and resource impact. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills has proposed that the costs of tracking down file-sharers be evenly split between the ISPs and the rights owners.

What are the UK creative industries asking for?

Nine bodies representing the creative industries - among them the body representing British record labels, the Federation Against Copyright Theft, and trade five unions, including the Musicians' Union - have in the past expressed a desire for the government to force Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to warn, throttle the speed of connection and ultimately disconnect persistent illegal file-sharers.

They want a commitment to stopping file-sharing and the responsibility for doing so to be placed on the ISPs and for that to be enshrined in legislation.

The games industry has already begun a clampdown of those illegally sharing videogames and the methods it uses would broadly be similar to those the music and film industry want.

How will ISPs detect illegal file-sharers?

ISPs routinely monitor traffic sent over their network, for maintenance and security purposes.

While it is relatively simple to monitor traffic sent using file-sharing programs, it is technically more challenging to know what exactly is being shared.

At present, content rights owners tend to monitor websites which offer links to copyright content and then obtain the Internet Protocol (IP) address of the online computer being used to share that data.

ISPs tend to own blocks of IP addresses, so it is relatively simple to identify the broadband account holder that is tied to a particular IP address at a particular time.

But this is a slow, and time-consuming procedure. One solution is to employ deep packet inspection (DPI) to look at the content of the "packets" of data being sent over the net.

The ISP can employ DPI to examine the contents of shared data and then using digital fingerprinting technology to see if the file is being exchanged with consent or not.

Will banning persistent file-sharers work?

The creative industries believe illegal file-sharing is almost endemic while the government has set a target of reducing the problem by at least 70% in the next two or three years.

The difficulty is that the problem is a moving target. More persistent file-sharers are already beginning to use software which masks their IP address while online, and the files being exchanged are encrypted, so it is harder for ISPs to use DPI technology.

However, the music and film industries are more likely attempting to target the "soft, underbelly" of file-sharing: the teenagers who are doing it because they are either apathetic or believe they can get away with it.

That raises another difficult issue in the debate about disconnecting file-sharers: they may be sharing their internet connection. Teenagers are likely to be using a connection at their parents' homes, and shared housing may see a number of independent users with just one file-sharer in their midst.

How have other countries dealt with the problem?

Countries around the world are grappling with how to control internet piracy.

In the US, student Joel Tenebaum, who has admitted downloading 800 songs, was last month ordered to pay $675,000 (£412,000) to various record labels after being found guilty on 31 charges of sharing music online.

In May, the French parliament passed legislation which would see a new state-agency sending warning letters to file sharers. If they are caught three times, they will be cut off.

There have been protests against similar proposed legislation in Australia and New Zealand.

In response to the French legislation, European politicians ruled that cutting off someone's internet connection could be a breach of their human rights.

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