File sharers beware: the government is after you

Richard Goodwin

COMMENT:Last week, the government came under pressure from the UK creative industries to deal with the persistent problem of illegal file sharers, downloaders, and the common internet pirate. However, can the government, even when working in cahoots with internet service providers (ISPs), stop literally billions of people all over the world from downloading and sharing their proverbial pieces of eight?

The recent high profile ruling of the PirateBay's case not only sparked a large scale global media debate, it has also added a level of reality to a problem that has been associated with the internet since its early days. That is illegal downloading and the damage it causes the creative industries.

However, in the real world - outside media debate and coverage - I've still yet to see a Hollywood or UK A-lister going hungry, or even taking a marginal reduction in their frankly absurd wage packets, which begs the question: where exactly is all this damage being done?

A creative industry alliance is attempting to force the government into adopting similar legislation that has been implemented in both France and Taiwan. The legislation would mean a three strikes and you're out' ruling that would see persistent file-sharers permanently disconnected from the internet.

Nevertheless, the problem is a multifaceted one. It brings up issues of privacy and anonymity, as well as the actual reality of monitoring such illegal activity, not to mention the financial and resource burden it would place on ISPs if they were required to undertake such a role.

How can ISPs, or even our profoundly Orwellian government, actually monitor the activity of millions of people? The term, needle in a haystack comes to mind.

ISPs have taken the stance of being merely conduits of internet traffic, which is how the law perceives them, and probably how the majority of the general public does too. Additionally, if the law is passed, and they have to monitor their customers' private internet activity, there is also the pressing ethical issue of whether or not its "cool" for companies to spy on their paying customers?

Either way, the government has stated that it will reduce the amount of illegal file-sharing by 70-80 per cent within the next three years. Quite a bold statement indeed. Particularly, since new software and ISPs are being born every day and providing complete anonymity and IP address scrambling, effectively cloaking such activity and online presence from any potential prying eyes.

The issue itself is huge in scale and cannot be tackled simply by imposing a ban; it just won't work. People are resourceful, and will always find a way back online. This is the nature of free economies, black markets, and a supposedly free society. If there is a need for something, somebody will provide it, either above board or illegally.

In short, the only way to stop file-sharing would be the complete totalitarian policing of the internet, with mass censorship, reams of regulation, and even more government red tape and bureaucracy, all of which would inevitably come out of the tax payers' wallet.

However, in reality this would be quite a leap. Whatever government is in power cannot expect private companies, such as the ISPs, amidst an economic downturn to drop everything and become the government's on-line secret police.