It recently emerged that six of the UK’s biggest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) have made agreements with the BPI, the UK record industry’s trade association, to monitor, warn, and possibly ban customers who fileshare illegally. A Virgin press release earlier this month described it as “a new education campaign”. The ISPs involved; BSkyB, BT, Carphone Warehouse, Orange, Tiscali and Virgin, altogether provide around 90% of the UK’s broadband connections, so this is no small shift in the debate around internet privacy.
As Charles Arthur of the Guardian discusses, the BPI plan is to first find the IP addresses of users illegally filesharing. They then contact these users’ ISPs, who are in turn obliged to send written warnings to the user, suspend their account if they are caught by the BPI a second time, and cancel their contract if they are caught a third time.
So do the BPI agreements with ISPs mark a decisive step down an unappealing road that will erode individual privacy on the net, and as this piece suggests, could lead to multitudes of ‘false positives’ – people mistakenly identified and punished as illegal filesharers?
The answer would have to be a qualified ‘no’. Merely identifying IP addresses does not reveal personal data, and the BPI will not request personal customer information from ISPs. The BPI also state that they will search for copyright violations by finding files shared relating to their own clients – which should ensure prying eyes stay well away from your holiday photos.
However, these agreements open up the field for wider collaboration between ISPs and third parties. Given the possibilities for evading blame presented to determined and unwitting users alike – Wi-Fi’s insecurity, shared connections, dynamic IP addresses, it is likely that the BPI and other trade groups will push ISPs to take more effective action to target filesharers. This would open the way for more intrusive blanket procedures such as checking users’ data packets for illegal activity.
We have previously talked about the availability of the necessary technology and the UK government’s support for such measures, so these BPI-ISP agreements, tame as they are, point to more worrying trends. We’ll be taking a closer look at the impact of government, corporate interest, and ever-developing technologies of surveillance on individual privacy in our forthcoming Pocket Issue: Big Brother.