Denying access won't stop illegal P2P

Just over ten years after Napster emerged as the first peer-to-peer file sharing system to help users share MP3s on their PC hard drives, the entertainment industry has remained in a general state of freak-out over P2P. And while Napster and other services have long since gone legit, music and movie moguls are still counting up the "billions" in losses from illegal file-sharing - and looking for ways to put a stop to it.

The latest example of the Nuclear War On Piracy can be seen in last month's news that the UK government plans to implement new rules under which illegal file-sharers could have their internet service throttled or cut off. According to The Guardian, the rules also propose putting this power directly in the hands of the secretary of state rather than telecom regulator Ofcom.

The idea of cutting off suspected illegal file-sharers is hardly new. New Zealand, France and the European Commission have attempted to establish similar laws in which P2P infringers are cut off after three warnings. Given that this has been going on a couple of years - and New Zealand is already having a second go at approving the scheme - it's likely other governments and regulators are considering it as well.

If so, they should note that every attempt to implement these rules so far has failed. Part of the problem seems to be that none of the proposals have required copyright holders to provide any evidence backing claims of illegal activity.

Perhaps another uncomfortable angle to this is that media company lobbyists are pressing governments to kick people off the internet at a time when more governments are pushing the idea of broadband access as a fundamental right and an essential driver of economic growth.

That's rather hard to square with the threat of being unplugged from the grid for illegal file-sharing on the say-so of media companies that are not legally required to prove your guilt first. (In the case of the UK proposal, it also conflicts with a recent European Parliament ruling in May that member governments need a court order to shut off anyone's internet connection.)

Easy workarounds

In any case, the "x-strikes-and-you're-unplugged" law, in any incarnation, is a bad idea on any number of levels - the cost to telcos and ISPs being the most relevant here.

On a more practical level, it's too easy to get around. For a start, broadband typically connects households, not individuals, even though the account is typically under one person's name.

So if the account is under dad's name, the family can simply get a new account under mom's name, or a relative, or a neighbor, or anyone else willing to put their name on the bill. (Assuming there are registration procedures preventing that, the alternative would be to cut off the entire household from the internet, which is decidedly overkill.)

Or they could simply piggyback off the nearest unsecured Wi-Fi connection or use a free Wi-Fi service. Or possibly even switch ISPs. The list goes on.

All told, it's a legally messy overkill solution that doesn't solve the overall problem. To be sure, content owners are well within their rights to fight piracy, but they also need to come to grips with the reality that most illegal file sharing is committed by a small percentage of users, many of whom do it not because they're unwilling to pay, but because P2P is easier to use and offers a wider variety of choice compared to the handful of legal digital media services available.

Content owners would be better served spending their energy finding effective ways to monetize digital content with better business models that improve the customer experience rather than pushing for badly written laws that neither end-users nor their service providers want.