ISPs to block illegal filesharing sites

1 August 2011   By Neil Hawkins

COMMUNICATIONS minister Ed Vaizey has thrown his support behind rights holders, and against many broadband providers, on the subject of blocking illegal filesharing sites.

pirate bay website
Credit: Sharaf Maksumov/

The MP took to Twitter at the end of last week to defend the historic ruling which will force BT to block the Newzbin2 filesharing site later in the year.

"Interesting judgement in Newzbin case, should make it easier for rights holders to prevent piracy," he tweeted.

Cue a torrent of disagreement.

Some argued that piracy would be easier to stop with legal access to movie downloads. "Try Lovefilm," suggested Vaizey.

Meanwhile others suggested, as has been claimed many times before, that the judgement will effectively put ISPs in charge of "policing the internet".

Vaizey, out of step with most broadband providers, strenuously denied that charge too.

Digital Economy hangover

In June this year broadband providers met with rights holders to debate the establishment of a voluntary code of practice on website censoring.

The move was a hangover from a plan set out in the Digital Economy Act (DEA) which sought to contain "internet copyright infringement activity", i.e. piracy, and send warnings to users suspected of this type of activity.

Repeat offenders were to be disconnected by their broadband provider.

The inherent flaws in this plan were quickly pointed out by ISPs and digital rights campaigners, however, and, ever since, Government has been fervently encouraging them to come up with a plan B.

Rights holders have naturally been pushing for a long list of websites which they deem to 'facilitate' internet copyright infringement to be blocked at a network level by broadband providers.

This would mean that access to sites which act as indexes for BitTorrent - such as The Pirate Bay - and file storage sites like RapidShare would be inaccessible from UK internet connections.

Broadband providers, on the other hand, have been fighting to ensure that they are not on dodgy legal territory by blocking access to sites which rights holders deem to contravene the law but authorities do not.

An impasse: Newzbin2

The Newzbin2 ruling seems to mark an impasse in that debate.

After months of fighting off the case bought by the Motion Picture Association, a Hollywood studios industry body, Simon Milner, director of group policy at BT said:

"This is a helpful judgement, which provides clarity on this complex issue.

"It clearly shows that rights holders need to prove their claims and convince a judge to make a court order."

In other words, broadband providers will wait for direction from the court rather than listening to the rights holders constantly clamouring for blocks or simply going ahead and blocking content themselves.

Similarly TalkTalk simply said, "If the MPA seeks a court order against us to block the Newzbin site then we will consider it."

At the June talks, it was suggested independent council be established which would have the power to decide which sites were blocked based upon evidence supplied by rights holders.

Any decision to block a particular website would mean the issuance of an indefinite injunction by the courts which would compel broadband providers to block the site in question.

The fact that rights holders have simply gone ahead and pursued blocks without the council being set up, however, suggests that the independent council for site blocking was a pipe dream.

Perversely, that's actually a plus for 'pro-filesharing' bodies such as The Open Rights Group (ORG) which have voiced their unhappiness about the private nature of the discussions.

"Censorship proposals must be made and discussed in public. Many of us will oppose any censorship that impacts directly and widely on free expression," said Executive Director of the ORG Jim Killock.

Is blocking practical?

Site blocking is generally agreed to be impractical.

Though broadband providers can 'block' content to some extent, moderately savvy broadband users are likely to be able to get around them.

Even if these concerns can be dealt with to some extent, broadband providers might be just as concerned with cost as with practicality.

Given the range and scope of illegal content - the number of sites offering copyrighted video hosted overseas must run into the thousands, for example - those costs will inevitably be high, though it'll be up to Ofcom to decide whether they're necessarily prohibitive.

Despite all the discussion and potential solutions the most obvious flaw with the plans is that UK broadband providers cannot control or remove the content of websites, only filter web addresses.

Publishing a report into the practicalities of site blocking in May Ofcom concluded that, "sections 17 and 18 [which relate to blocking] are unlikely to be able to provide a framework for site blocking which would be effective.

"We do not believe that it is possible to deliver a framework under the DEA which simultaneously meets the requirement of copyright owners for a timely implementation of blocks and a flexible approach from service providers to tackling circumvention, with the need to respect the legitimate interests of site operators, service providers and end users."

Meanwhile, a poll asked Be broadband customers what they would do when the DEA becomes law.

A clear majority (47%) said they would "continue to use filesharing software but will take steps to conceal my identity".

So after all this huffing and puffing anyone in the UK with a proxy server or virtual private network (VPN) in place could easily bypass any blocks that are put in place.

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