ISPs tracking how many times users download pirated content

14 February 2017, 13:47   By Samantha Smith

INTERNET service providers (ISPs) have begun sending warning letters to their customers who download pirated music and films, with many seemingly keeping tabs on how many times their users breach copyright law.

piracy computer
Credit: AlexLMX/

The warnings were first readied for dispatch in January as part of the Creative Content UK (CCUK) initiative, which represents a joint agreement between the entertainment industry and ISPs to stamp out online piracy via a combination of advocacy and advertising.

However, it's only now that the exact content of these warnings is coming to light, with one particular email received by a Sky customer revealing the full extent of their knowledge of his online activities.

Yet as comprehensive as the knowledge of ISPs appears to be, the warnings have so far attempted only to educate their recipients, without threatening any punishment and therefore without doing anything specific to actually stop them infringing copyright in the future.

Big Brother is watching

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That the CCUK initiative doesn't involve the possibility of prosecution would perhaps account for the ominous extent of the detail contained within the notices sent out by ISPs.

As originally reported by filesharing news site TorrentFreak, in the case of the Sky customer above, the detail involved not only the name of the pirated programme (Westworld), but also the following metadata:

  • Time and date of download
  • IP address
  • Application used to download content
  • Name of file downloaded
  • File size
  • File type
  • Copyright owner of downloaded content

Added to this list, there's also a space at the bottom of the notice where any previous infractions would be listed.

This suggests that Sky - or rather the third-party agency called MarkMonitor who do the monitoring for them and other UK ISPs - are keeping a tally of how many times people are downloading digital entertainment they shouldn't be.

Put differently, the warnings appear to be meant not only as "education" of people who somehow aren't already aware that filesharing isn't actually legal, but also as a show of power. They see ISPs and the entertainment industry essentially telling the public something along the lines of, "We're watching you."

Cat and mouse

But like the many other measures introduced over the years with the purpose of stopping illegal filesharing, this latest instalment in the seemingly endless war on piracy may not be entirely effective.

In 2012, for example, the High Court ordered ISPs to block the Pirate Bay, perhaps the most notorious piracy website in the world at the time.

However, only a week after the order, ISPs reported that file-sharing activity had already returned to its previous levels. This was because newer piracy sites had popped up that weren't recognised by ISPs' blocking systems, and because internet users had learnt how to get around the ban by changing their IP address.

The court-ordered ban was therefore almost completely ineffective, while later attempts to block other piracy sites were similarly doomed, if only because newer - as well as "mirror" - sites sprang up to replace those as well.

Because of this, anti-piracy efforts remain little more than a constant game of cat and mouse, with authorities and copyright holders consistently striving to act in a way that reminds downloaders that piracy is wrong, and with downloaders consistently ignoring them.


And once again, the current anti-piracy efforts are also subject to a number of loopholes that dampen their effectiveness.

Not only do they involve no threat of prosecution, but they also target only those who use BitTorrent-based peer-to-peer file-sharing websites, such as Popcorn Time.

It was because he used Popcorn Time that the aforementioned Sky customer was sent an educational email. Yet as he remarked, this was the first time his illegal downloading activity was ever detected, despite the fact that he downloads content all the time.

He said, "I was expecting [a warning] sooner or later as a heavy BitTorrent user. I'm sharing everything from movies, TV shows to games, but this email was about watching a TV show on Popcorn Time".

He added, "This surprised me because I don't use Popcorn Time very often and yet after approximately 10 minutes of usage I got an email the very next day".

On the one hand, the quickness of this response would suggest that ISPs will be quick to pounce on repeat offenders. However, on the other, the fact that they appear to target those using only a few particular sites would suggest that internet users could simply keep migrating their downloading activity to unmonitored sites.

Yet as with previous attempts to curb online piracy, only time will tell whether this will occur, and whether ISPs and copyright holders will be forced to take more draconian action, including threats of financial penalties and imprisonment.

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