Proposal to Cut Web Access to Illegal File Sharers Takes Aim at the Wrong Target

The UK government is proposing to pass a law that bans people who repeatedly download copyrighted music through file-sharing sites from using the internet. The proposal is part of a plan to help tackle illegal peer-to-peer file sharing on sites like Limewire.

“Technology and consumer behavior is fast-changing and it’s important that Ofcom (The independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries) has the flexibility to respond quickly to deal with unlawful file-sharing,” Minister for Digital Britain Stephen Timms said in a statement.

The proposals include requiring ISPs to penalize individual repeat infringers, with such actions as blocking access to download sites, reducing broadband speeds, and temporarily suspending an individual’s Internet account.

Under the proposals, the Secretary of State would direct Ofcom to introduce technical measures to clamp down on piracy if necessary.

Why this approach won’t work

Finding a solution to copyrighted or illegal file-sharing has been the bane of governments around the world. A variety of solutions have been tried with disappointing levels of success. Why? Because they’re focusing on the wrong piece of the puzzle by going after the millions of downloaders’ – this is an impossible task.

It is akin to realizing an armored truck has a hole through which money is falling out and dribbling down the street, yet instead of plugging the hole, we attempt to place police along the route to block the public from picking up the cash.

Chasing every user who downloads copyrighted or illegal content will never be successful – nor should it be the primary aim of law enforcement

Whether the government is attempting to stop the distribution of content that is copyrighted or illegal there are three players involved:

  • The individual/organization who wants to share the content
  • The Service that provides connectivity, indexing, and related functionality
  • The downloader

ukprop1Rather than focus on the millions of downloaders, primary focus should be on blocking the indexing of copyrighted or illegal content by holding the services that provide indexing and connectivity accountable. They are much bigger fish to fry and by choking these, it effectively diminishes the ability of downloaders to find content and break the law.

To do this, services that provide indexing and connectivity should receive hash values (A hash function is a procedure that converts data into a small digital fingerprint of the image/video/song)  of copyrighted content from the music and video industries, and from an entity that stores hashed values of child exploitation or other illegal content.

This places the ownership of supplying hash values on the industries that own the copyrights and are seeking to block the illegal distribution of their content (and stop their financial losses), as well as on the entity(ies) responsible for storing and archiving illegal content for law enforcement bodies.

It also places tools in the hands of services, which profit through providing indexing and connectivity, to block the upload of any content that matches the known hash values – and fuzzy hash values- and thereby prevent the transmission of most copyrighted or illegal content via their services.

Hosting sites could then be required to capture the device/location/user information of distributors that attempted to upload new or altered copyrighted or illegal content in an effort to circumvent the hash blocks and, based on regulations, notify law enforcement as needed.

By placing the accountability and compliance monitoring on the industries that stand to lose or profit from file-sharing, law enforcement is freed up to effectively target the relatively small number of professional/institutionalized distributors of copyrighted or illegal content and choke the problem.

Before protests arise about the ability to circumvent hashes, this is an existing problem that will continue to need addressing with technological advances.

Linda, with advice from David Milstein


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