Following in France’s footsteps, the UK is also moving towards a tougher approach on peer-to-peer websites, with six of the top British internet service providers agreeing upon a provision that engage them in sending letters to repeat downloaders of music or films from the Web.
Virgin, BT, Tiscali, BSkyB, Carphone Warehouse and Orange have all signed up to the non-legally binding agreement with the online content industry, committing themselves to discouraging the free downloading of music or films covered by copyright.
The deal was brokered by the UK government and foresees that letters be sent to users caught illegally downloading or uploading content online. In other words, anybody who shares files on peer-to-peer websites – thus not only those who get free material but also those who distribute it – is likely to receive a warning letter at home about this illegal activity.
Hundreds of thousands of letters are expected. However, the deal does not as yet commit to any concrete action to punish serial offenders, saying such measures still have to be analysed. Therefore, unlike what is expected in France, enforcement in the UK will not be guaranteed.
Indeed, the French draft law, which still awaits the green light from Parliament, establishes a three-step approach in which the last step would be to block persistent offenders’ internet connections.
In the UK, the only restrictive measure foreseen for the moment is the reduction of the speed of the illegal downloader’s connection. The government has nevertheless launched a public consultation on the issue.
The UK move triggered varying reactions both within the country and across Europe. Small British ISPs are not happy with the deal signed by their larger counterparts and are unwilling to make similar commitments, complaining that oversight activities are costly and should be carried out by public security authorities.
Except for France, a wait-and-see approach appears to be prevailing in other European countries, notably because it is not clear how restrictive measures could be applied without affecting existing rules on privacy and communications.
What role for the EU?
The European Commission supports a “fair balance”, but is increasingly aware of the risks related to illegal downloading for the European content industry. A new EU recommendation on ‘Content online’ is expected in the autumn. Indeed, France currently holds the rotating EU Presidency and is keen to increase copyright protection throughout Europe.
Several MEPs have also argued in favour of tough anti-piracy measures, although they unsuccesfully tried to include new provisions in the general Telecoms Review, currently under debate in the European Parliament (EURACTIV 20/02/08).
For its part, the European Court of Justice ruled in January that internet providers cannot be obliged to release customers’ personal data during civil legal claims raised by copyright owners (EURACTIV 30/01/08).