British bid to block file-sharing sites raises concerns | Science| In-depth reporting on science and technology | DW | 24.03.2011
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British bid to block file-sharing sites raises concerns

British Internet service providers have been asked to block filesharing websites. How to curb illegal file-sharing is also an ongoing debate in Germany. But some say the focus should rather be on compensating artists.

Young woman listening to music on her mobile phone

Various methods are being discussed to curb illegal sharing

In the United Kingdom, entertainment industry coypright holders have identified about 100 websites – including The Pirate Bay, based in Sweden – that they want British Internet service providers (ISPs) to block.

According to a new voluntary code currently under discussion, content owners would alert an ISP when the owners suspect that unauthorized copying is taking place, and then they would go after the alleged infringers.

Infringement on users' privacy?

'The Pirate Bay' logo

The Pirate Bay is among the websites that the music and film industry wants to ban access to in Britain

British providers seem to be generally open to the idea of blocking certain sites, but they want an impartial judge to decide which sites should no longer be accessible.

This latest proposal, which was made public this week, is yet another effort to curb illegal file-sharing in the United Kingdom. The British government has now started a series of talks between ISPs and content owners where they hope to develop a voluntary code on internet policy, including site blocking.

When, at the end of last year, the previous British government pushed through the Digital Economy Act, a law that regulates digital media, this initiated a heated debate between the two sides, with providers BT and TalkTalk putting forward a high court challenge against the Act on Wednesday.

They claim that the measures under the Act unnecessarily impact users' privacy and force ISPs to police copyright infringement on the net.

If URL is blocked, use the IP address

In Germany, there have been similar attempts to block certain sites, mainly in the field of child pornography. But it's hardly an effective method, say legal experts.

"The problem is that when you block a site's URL, users can still access the content if they know the internet protocol address," says Christian Solmecke, an attorney with Wilde, Beuger, Solmecke law firm in Cologne. "It is just too easy to get around the ban."

Computer screen with song titles

What is an appropriate way of compensating artists for financial losses?

The absurdity of the proposal, according to Joe McNamee, advocacy coordinator for European Digital Rights, a Brussels-based non-profit, lies in the fact that the sites in question only facilitate infringements.

"The sites allow users to download peer-to-peer software," McNamee told Deutsche Welle. "If you block them this would be like blocking one end of any street where any pub is located to stop people from becoming alcoholics."

Users don't need the websites to get the file-sharing software, they just need someone to tell them where to download via another means, like BitTorrent, Usenet or many others.

"You just need someone to tell you where you can download via another protocol," McNamee said, "It's like going to the supermarket to buy the alcohol because the street to the pub is blocked."

So blocking sites, most experts agree, is hardly an appropriate policy response to deal with the issue.

Much like in Britain, however, lawmakers in Germany are having trouble finding suitable answers how artists can be compensated if users share files on platforms such as BitTorrent, eDonkey, eMule, or Kazaa.

Artists need to be compensated

The German music and film industry has taken lately to commissioning law firms who identify individual users and send out notifications to them.

For the law firms it is a lucrative business because they sometimes ask users to pay exorbitantly high fines. Many people pay because they are afraid of the consequences.

Two female students in a computer class at college

The next generation will have a different understanding of intellectual property

Solmecke's law firm currently represents 11,000 users who have received such letters. According to estimates by the German "Association against the mania of giving warnings" ("Verein gegen den Abmahn-Wahn"), some 500,000 people in Germany were concerned in 2010 alone.

Germany is currently debating the introduction of a so-called "arts flat rate," i.e. an annual lump sum of some 100 euros which all computer users would have to pay. The money would go to the music and film industry directly.

Solmecke, the German attorney, believes this flat rate would be a good solution, but he doubts that the industry will likely agree on a mechanism any time soon which would regulate who gets how much of the earnings.

Legislators need to become active soon, however, Solmecke said, because users are not likely to stop sharing files, just on the contrary – he expects the next generation to have a different understanding of intellectual property rights altogether.

"In a couple of years' time," he said, "when you tell a young person they can't use a song from German band Culcha Candela in a video they've created on their mobile phone, they won't even know what the problem is and use the song anyway."

Author: Nina Haase
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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