Digital Economy Act: What’s the true picture?

By Chris Lee

The Digital Economy Act has proven overwhelmingly unpopular with the UK digital media industry, prompting the development of websites enabling people to check whether their MP voted and how they voted. Its chief concerns include fears over the threat of broadband disconnection if their network is identified as having been used repeatedly to pirate copyrighted material. This could lead free wireless spots – such as cafes, libraries and universities – closing their networks down in case serial file sharers used their facilities to conduct their operations.

The British Recorded Music Industry (BPI) welcomed the passing of the Act, saying that it “will not eliminate all piracy, but [the Act] will go a long way towards reducing illegal freeloading and will help to build a more sustainable ecosystem for content on the Internet.”

While the real impact of the Act is several months off – comms regulator Ofcom now has to consult with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) over the Code of Practice – NMK’s Chris Lee caught up with a number of leading digital media practitioners to gauge their thoughts on the impact of the Act.

Swedish model

According to online consultant Ged Carroll of PR agency Ruder Finn, the Act is likely to encourage the technologically savvy to encrypt their connection and use a virtual private network (VPN) service.

“In Sweden where a similar law was brought in, Internet traffic dipped for a few months and then went back to its former levels – this time encrypted,” he said. “Illegal file-sharing is based on the nebulous suspicious activity which could be using Yousendit to send Granny a video of the kids’ birthday party or using a VPN tunnel to connect to the office or protect your privacy.”

Total (un)wired

But even if an infringement is cited, how can the powers that be enforce the Act? Will this force wireless hotspot providers to panic and shut down?

Sebastian Lahtinen is co-founder of independent broadband advice site, thinkbroadband.com. He told NMK that the problem with taking action following an infringement is in identifying the culprit.

“[There was] the argument was that no one could continue to provide free public Wi-Fi services, if they ended up being responsible for all the actions of their users. It would be a bit like making the local council responsible for burglaries on the basis that burglars would use the roads to travel to the scene of the crime,” he argued. “The government acknowledged the issues faced where free Internet access was provided, so we hope to see these being addressed in the regulations that still need to be written. This might mean some kind of registration and authentication for example, and consequently smaller hotspot operators deciding that it is simply too much effort, but we are certain free Wi-Fi will still be available in many locations.”

The bottom line

Paul Dawson, Experience Director at EMC Consulting, was an active lobbyist against the Act. The fundamental issue he has with the Digital Economy Act is that he believes the copyright mechanisms it seeks to protect are rapidly becoming immaterial to the way people actually consume media.

“Much of the Act is aimed at protecting rights that have historically been known as ‘Mechanical Copyright’ because they protected a physical medium from being copied – such as, taping an LP,” he told NMK. “This notion of a ‘mechanical medium’ simply cannot be applied to the digital environment in a practical way. Downloading a digital file – i.e. the physical medium – doesn’t really matter, it’s how often you play it and to whom that should determine what you pay for it.”

Dawson argued that to move away from these long-standing concepts requires a huge re-think by the rights industries of the models they use to “give artists their rightful share of the pie”.

Dawson said that the government and record labels are looking to criminalise businesses because they may unwillingly be complicit in the illegal activities of others.

“Prosecuting a Wi-Fi service provider because someone has used their network to download illegal material will simply result in them closing the service down,” he concluded. “And if one of the objectives of the Digital Economy Act is to bring Internet connectivity to the masses, then this will damage the chance of freely available connectivity rather than enhance it.”

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