ISPs send warning letters to illegal downloaders

What happened?

ISPs in the UK have finally started sending letters to customers who download copyrighted material illegally, in an attempt to dissuade them.

The plans have been years in the making, having first been unveiled as part of the Digital Economy Act, which was rushed through Parliament in 2010. Letters were initially expected to be sent in 2011, but debates and court cases over who should pay for them delayed the project. Now that those issues have apparently been sorted out, ISPs including BT, Virgin Media, TalkTalk and Sky have started warning customers who repeatedly flout the law.

The letters are only educational, with no threat of sanctions or fines, so don’t panic if you receive one. The situation is reminiscent of reports from several years ago when lawyers sent letters demanding payment for pirated material. These so-called ‘speculative invoices’ were sent to people whose broadband accounts appeared to have been used to download a specific film or piece of adult content illegally, and demanded hundreds of pounds in payment. If you didn’t pay, the lawyers threatened court action. However, they failed to take anyone to court, and the practice was quietly dropped.

How will it affect you?

Unlike those speculative invoices, these missives from ISPs contain no demands for payment. Instead, a sample letter suggests they’ll simply flag up the fact that someone using the broadband connection has been spotted downloading content illegally.

The messages are designed to inform people that someone they live with is misbehaving online, or to alert less tech-savvy web users that the site they’re downloading from isn’t above board, in case they were unaware. The letters also aim to highlight legal alternatives in the hope that users will make better decisions next time.

The letters may refer to something called ‘Get it Right from a Genuine Site’ (www.getitrightfromagenuinesite.org). This is a government-backed campaign run by lobby group Creative Content UK through which copyright owners are sending the letters.

If you receive a letter, you needn’t panic. There’s no bill attached, and ISPs aren’t threatening to cut off your broadband. It’s also worth remembering that it’s possible no-one at your home has been downloading illegally -sometimes the IP address system can’t accurately determine who is attached to which connection. So if your offspring or spouse say it wasn’t them, they may be telling the truth.

What do we think?

Not only are the letters too little too late, they were never likely to have much effect without some form of punishment to back them up. What’s more, the campaign only targets people who download from peer-to-peer sites, when much piracy has shifted to direct downloads, streaming services and set-top-boxes equipped with systems such as Kodi (kodi.tv) to search for unofficial copies of films and TV series.

The letters won’t be news to many peer-to-peer users – after all, most so-called pirates are aware that what they’re doing isn’t entirely legal. While pointing out that their ISP knows what they’re up to may have a chilling effect on some, without any sanction it seems unlikely that they would stop.

Meanwhile, the inaccuracy of identifying people by IP address makes it unfair to fine users or cut off their broadband.

What can be done to cut down on piracy? We’d argue that the best method is to offer alternatives that are easy to use and relatively low-cost. Many people happily pay to stream music from Spotify and watch video through Netflix – it’s simply easier for most of us than tracking down an illegal stream.

These letters have been delayed for too long and fail to address modern forms of piracy, and there’s no real reason to obey them. It’s hard to imagine that people who have been pirating music and video throughout the seven years the Digital Economy Act has been in force will stop now.

We’ll take a closer look at the legal aspects of using Kodi in our next issue.

We will be happy to hear your thoughts

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