No offence meant

Online file-sharing should be seen as an opportunity, rather than a threat

Two days before Valentine's Day, the Open Rights Group, the grass-roots organisation that I help run, found itself swept up in a media whirlwind. That morning, the Times had led with a story to send chills down the spines of the UK's six million illicit file-sharers. Having seen a leaked green paper, to be published by the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, the Times reported what readers of this column will have known since November - that when it comes to infringement of copyright online, this government is not afraid to flex its legislative muscle.

The proposals to combat file-sharing are allegedly outlined in the paper, which aspires to make Britain the world's creative hub, and they swing between the disastrous and the dim-witted. Those who upload copyrighted content onto peer-to-peer (p2p) file-sharing networks are to be identified by their IP addresses, after which their internet service provider is to commence sending a series of threatening letters. If said customer has not desisted by the posting of letter three, he or she is to be disconnected from the internet.

Why is this disastrous? Because it is wildly disproportionate to the alleged offence. In most families, an internet connection is shared by the entire household - so if Dad gets the connection cut off for sharing films online, suddenly Mum will find can't she run her business from home, and the kids that they can't use the web to do their homework. We wouldn't cut off the electricity to stop people swapping Britney's latest hits online, so why, in the government's vision of an "e-enabled" Britain, would we consider cutting off their internet?

Why is this dim-witted? Because the first day that the government introduces it, the technically savvy illicit file-sharer will use encryption techniques to mask his IP address. And the second day, he will develop an easy-to-use tool so that the less technically savvy user can mask her IP address, too. And then the government will be right back to where it started.

On the day of the leak I had fun explaining this on Radio 4's World at One, 6 Music and ITV's evening news. By then, I was exhausted - but I'd one more press slot to go. By the time I got there the atmosphere had changed. The consensus seemed to be that the final version of the DCMS green paper might not contain the "three strikes" proposal after all.

It is difficult to see how the government will overcome the political and technical barriers that stand between it and new laws on illicit file-sharing. Perhaps this is because the solution lies elsewhere: encouraging industry to stop seeing the UK's illicit file-sharers as criminals and start seeing them as a potential market. If industry and ISPs could work out a way to license p2p, everyone would win, including, most importantly, artists. But, for this to happen, the government must first stop pretending that it's going to legislate.

Becky Hogge is a writer and technologist. She was formerly the technology director of award-winning current affairs website, and Executive Director of the Open Rights Group, a grassroots digital civil liberties organisation.

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Pakistan reborn