Six million ways to buy

The music industry shows bad business sense by threatening downloaders

Are you expecting a nasty letter from your internet service provider this summer? If you are one of the alleged six million illicit file-sharers in the UK, you should be. Hundreds of thousands of letters will be sent out by the UK's six major ISPs in the next three months as part of a "voluntary" agreement, strong-armed by the government, between ISPs and rights holders.

This "education" scheme is the beginning of a strategy to curb online file-sharing, with technical measures including filtering and traffic shaping - even mandatory disconnection of repeat offenders - on the horizon after parliament gets back from the summer recess.

Industry says that online piracy costs it profits. But who is really out to get something for nothing here? On the face of it, the answer is the illicit file-sharers. It is they, after all, who end up with the hundreds of tracks on their iPods without once needing to put their hands in their pockets. But look at the situation a different way. Where other sectors that have been challenged by the internet - the news media, for example - have adapted their business models to suit the digital age, the record industry has, instead, gone cap in hand to the government, asking for the clock to be turned back, and for the nasty digital world to somehow be magicked away.

The sad thing is that the government appears to have listened. What's worse is that, for all it tries, any efforts it makes to curb illicit file-sharing through legislative means are likely to be unacceptably draconian, or hopelessly ineffectual, or both. Six million illicit file-sharers might look to legislators like six million criminals; to any sensible businessperson they look like a market. Until record and film companies can offer consumers legal, attractive and competitive alternatives to illicit file-sharing, enforcement measures will simply drive it further underground.

A small proportion of the planned nasty letters may send the recipients back to the record shop (be it online or off). The majority will send people looking for something else that gives them music on tap, but spares them the green ink. If a legitimate alternative existed, then, according to a recent survey for British Music Rights, 80 per cent of those currently downloading files illegally would be interested in using it. But if such a service does not exist, those evicted from this generation of peer-to-peer file-sharing systems will seek out the next: more advanced, encrypted - designed, in fact, to evade any enforcement measure the government can think up.

The agreement between ISPs and rights holders pays lip service to the need for new business models. The Culture Secretary, Andy Burnham, insists that the proposals are vital to safeguard the UK's creative economy. But putting the future in the hands of an industry that has been unable to adapt to business conditions seems deeply unwise.

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 04 August 2008 issue of the New Statesman, China: The patriot games