ISPs could soon be asked to monitor the online activities of their users
The UK government has said it will introduce legislation to allow persistent illegal file-sharers to be disconnected from the net.
Haven't we heard this before?
The government has previously said that it had backed plans to curb piracy.
Earlier this year, Business Secretary Peter Mandelson said he backed a so-called "three strikes" rule that would mean persistent pirates would be sent two warning letters before facing disconnection from the network.
Mr Mandelson has now confirmed that the government will introduce legislation to allow this to happen by the summer of 2011.
The decision is an apparent U-turn for the government. The Digital Britain report, published in June, originally gave Ofcom until 2012 to consider whether technical measures to catch pirates were necessary.
What are the principal issues?
The creative industries estimate that six million people in the UK 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. A report by analyst firm Forrester recently reported that 10% of all internet users in the UK share files illegally. The figure for Europe is 14%.
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.
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.
Mr Mandelson has said that the cost of tracking down file-sharers be evenly split between the ISPs and the rights owners.
How would 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 illegal 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 August 2009, US student Joel Tenebaum was ordered to pay $675,000 (£412,000) to various record labels after being found guilty on 31 charges of sharing music online.
The French government has also approved a "three strikes" plan that would see pirates removed from the net for up to a year.
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.