Mon Dec 14, 2009 16:34
"THIS is the kind of snooping you'd expect in China, not a modern western democracy. It raises huge questions over privacy invasion and freedom of expression." So says Andrew Heaney - who is not, as you might imagine, a civil liberties campaigner, but a senior executive at TalkTalk, one of the UK's largest internet service providers. Along with other ISPs, his company faces the prospect of being forced to spy on its customers' downloads for signs of potential copyright infringement.
Heaney's disquiet is shared by web campaigners worldwide, as the measures contained in a controversial international copyright treaty (New Scientist, 5 July 2008, p 24) are slowly being translated into national laws variously tipped to bridge, distract from or widen the gulf between the entertainment industry's desires and those of the millions who share copyrighted material over the internet.
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), suggested by the US administration in 2007, aims to redefine global trade rules. The intention is to stem losses from counterfeiting and internet-mediated piracy of content like music and movies.
It will do that by penalising internet service providers and websites that carry, or help people to find, pirated content. ACTA has quickly proved a hit with G8 nations, the European Union, South Korea and Australia, who are all using it as a basis for future national laws.
ACTA is still being worked up in secret by trade delegations from the many nations involved. But a series of leaks to the Wikileaks website reveal that it will require ISPs to become technological sleuths who monitor their customers' internet use to "deter unauthorised storage and transmission of infringing content". Infringers will face a "graduated response", with disconnection as the ultimate sanction.
The Obama administration's plans to implement ACTA are still hidden in a thicket of non-disclosure agreements with movie studios and record labels. The UK's Digital Economy Bill, unveiled in last month, is clearly inspired by ACTA.
The bill stipulates that people who share copyright-infringing content should receive two warnings by post, after which they will face punitive "technical measures". These may include having their internet connection filtered to block attempts to download copyrighted material, "throttled" to slow downloads to a crawl, or even cut off entirely. Spain, Ireland and France have similar plans.
ISPs are wary of being seen to invade customers' privacy by sifting through their personal data - and of the potential costs involved - though Nicholas Lansman, head of the European ISP Association, insists that they oppose illicit file sharing.
"Monitoring every single packet going across our network for the fingerprints of hundreds of copyrighted files will require tens of millions of pounds' worth of computer systems," Heaney warns. Without that extra computing power, internet access will slow to a crawl.
ISPs would have to scan the contents of every chunk of data, using what is known as "deep packet inspection" technology, which is used by China and Iran to monitor and censor internet communications. But even if ISPs install such technology, identifying infringers will be far from straightforward. The EU has ruled that before anyone can be sent a warning letter, rights holders must take an ISP to court to get the name and address of an alleged culprit.
ISPs would have to scan every chunk of data with the sort of software now used by China and Iran
There is evidence that such threats will deter some people from illicitly sharing content (see "Copyright conundrum"). Others, though, will simply seek ways of carrying on regardless.
Freeloading on an unsuspecting neighbour's Wi-Fi connection is one option - and is possible even if the connection is secured. YouTube carries videos on how to use free software to "sniff" the passwords of protected connections. The ease with which people can "borrow" Wi-Fi in this way undermines the assumption that the owner of a connection can be blamed for everything downloaded by it. "The government knows there is a wireless hijacking risk but they haven't proposed a process by which people can be assumed innocent until proven guilty," says Heaney.
The mobile broadband connections provided via cellphones or computer USB sticks offer another loophole to the disconnected. Mobile providers do not assign IP addresses to users as fixed line providers do, so it's not possible to track file sharing to individuals.
These problems are exacerbated by changes in sharing technology. BitTorrent, the most popular file-sharing protocol, used to depend on central websites to host "trackers" - small files that tell software where to find particular files. The Pirate Bay site in Sweden was the most popular tracker host, but it recently shut down after a refinement to the BitTorrent protocol allowed tracking tasks to be shared out among users.
With the disappearance of tracker hosts, ACTA has lost one of its main targets, although rights holders can still track alleged infringers, says Danny O'Brien of the Electronic Frontier Foundation in San Francisco. Investigators can join a network and spy on its users from the inside, he says.
Heaney notes that software used to record music from legitimate internet streaming services, and that can automatically label all tracks in a handy library, is impossible to detect. Meanwhile, O'Brien predicts offline sharing will become more common, as ultra-high-capacity hard drives get cheaper. By this time next year a terabyte of storage - enough for more than 1000 movies - is expected to cost as little as $50.
Public attitudes and the nature of digital information mean that large numbers of people will continue to breach copyright, O'Brien says. "The fact they can do it so casually is a side-effect of how easy it is to copy digital data, and how difficult it is to stop that. That ease of copying isn't going to go away."