In previous posts we've discussed subjects like Net Neutrality and the effect of file sharing through Peer-2-Peer networks. In the main though the discussion has been centred around the effect on our network, how we manage the traffic and the service our customers receive.
There's another aspect to consider as well: it would be naive thinking to assume that everyone that downloads something from the Internet has, where necessary, the appropriate permission from the copyright holder to do so.
We know from looking at our traffic graphs that the day after popular TV shows like Lost or Heroes are shown in the USA, for example, there's an increase in downloading. Fairly easy to put two and two together.
Now as an ISP it isn't our job to police what people download, if you're downloading (or letting others download) TV shows, films, software, etc. without the appropriate permission of the copyright holder then that's a choice that you make for your own Internet connection.
It is, of course, no surprise that the various copyright holders want to protect their intellectual property. For anyone that has not kept up with this topic, organisations like the RIAA and MPAA in the USA have been contacting people suspected of "illegal file sharing" for some time, as well as targeting the sites that offer (or provide links to) copyright material. TV-Links and OiNK, to name but two, are both high profile sites that have recently been closed down through legal action from one party or another.
At PlusNet we have an obligation to our customers to protect their personal data, and we take that obligation very seriously indeed. Part of our Terms and Conditions state "We will not pass any of your personal data to outside organisations and/or individuals, except for the purposes of delivering specific Services and/or Equipment, to you or with your express consent." However it's important that customers are aware that, as with any other business in the UK, there are circumstances where this can be overridden. An example would be where English law dictates a different path, and specifically considering the issue of file sharing, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act (or RIPA) is relevant. Details of the act can be found here and here. Amongst its powers under RIPA, the High Court can request from an ISP details about particular customers.
We have recently been requested to provide such details as part of an investigation by the game publisher Codemasters. They allege that a number of our customers and, from what we understand, customers of other ISPs, have downloaded and/or uploaded Codemasters' software without their permission. They have provided the results of their investigation to an English court and that court has been satisfied that the information provided is sufficient to request details from the ISPs.
In this particular case we were provided with a list of IP addresses and a request to know which of our customers was assigned each IP address at a specific time and date. The time is very important because in the case of a dynamic IP address, when a customer disconnects that IP address will go back into the pool and it could easily be reassigned to another customer. So if the times aren't in synchronisation there's a danger of identifying the wrong person.
As these requests effectively come through and are processed as data protection requests by ourselves, we levy a charge for providing the data. We also need to satisfy ourselves that the requests are valid, genuine and correctly processed and so we ensure they are verified by our own legal representatives.
In the case of the Codemasters' requests we've seen, our understanding is that once they received the contact details they instructed their legal representatives to contact the individuals by letter asking that each person:
1. Promise in a written undertaking not to upload, download, make available or otherwise share the Work or any of our client's works (or other intellectual property) or to permit others to do the same using your Internet connection, at any time in the future, either from the above IP address or any other;
2. Agree to delete any copies of the Work (and any other intellectual property of our client) from your hard drive, operating system and any copies saved to disk (or other media), other than those that were purchased by you from a legitimate source, and;
3. pay £537 to this firm as compensation to our client for its losses and as a contribution to our client's costs incurred to date.
For any customers that have received one of these letters we would suggest seeking appropriate legal advice. Other than confirming that the letter is genuine our support team won't be able to help in relation to the letter itself.
We can make a few suggestions to anyone that is in any way concerned.
We have no way of knowing whether customers knowingly downloaded the files themselves, whether another member of their household/workplace downloaded it or whether it was done via an insecure network. The first piece of advice is that if you use a wireless network is to ensure that it is secured. See this page for some advice on wireless security. Consult the manual that came with your hardware or check the help pages of the manufacturer's website if you are unsure of how to do this.
There are also trojans that can allow someone to gain remote access to a PC without the owner's knowledge and it's not unknown for PCs to be used for file sharing without the owners knowledge because of a trojan. Sending spam email and DDoS attacks attacks against different servers are the most common uses for a compromised PC but using it for file sharing is not unknown.
You can also check the usage on your account using our View My Usage tool.
This will give you a total of your usage and on most accounts there's a View Internet Activities button to let you see the split of usage into different protocols such as web, email and peer-2-peer. It's normal to see small amounts of usage under protocols you haven't used (e.g. a couple of MB of Broadband Phone Calls when you don't use VoIP) because there will always be a small amount of background traffic which has to be classed as something (and may well look like VoIP for example) and there will always be traffic marked as Other because we don't list every single type of traffic in the View My Usage tool. Remote access protocols like VPN as well as DNS lookups will appear in the Other category.
If there are though large amounts of data for categories you don't use then someone else (maybe the kids on a home network or a work colleague for an office connection) is using them from your connection and may well be downloading files without your knowledge.
There are plenty of "legal' content distribution systems, the BBC iPlayer, 4OD, (and the forthcoming Project Kangaroo), Napster, Steam and iTunes to name some of the most recognised. The business models of the subscription/paid services clearly work because people hand over their cash when the content may well be available on a file sharing network as well.
In many ways it's interesting to see who is and in particular who isn't targeted by the RIAA, MPAA and others.
Could it be that the RIAA doesn't want to pick a fight with people that can and will fight back? A college full of America's next top lawyers and their wealthy and influential families doesn't sound like a sensible target to me.
I'm sure they are concerned that someone will take a stand and challenge them. Running the danger of losing and setting a legal precedence is not what they want. Especially if it's an "I only downloaded <insert software title> because my CD was scratched" loophole which almost anyone could use.
While I'm not trying to defend copyright theft neither am I in total agreement with the action taken. Surely somewhere down the line there's a middle ground. Film maker Eric Wilkinson for one has had a lot of positive comments about file sharing.
Copies of his independent film "The Man from Earth" appeared on the 'net and generated positive reviews because of this and the effect of the file sharing turned out to be a massive promotional machine for a low budget movie.
How many other examples are there like this? And how many people that download something then go on to buy it? Figures of millions of pounds in lost revenue are often bandied about as the cost of file sharing but like "The Man from Earth" does file sharing bring upon it an increase in revenue because when considered as a marketing tool it reaches consumers that either traditional marketing doesn't or allows people to "try before they buy" when they are concerned they may not like it or in the case of software may not work on their PC.
What people download and use their connections for is their own business and as I said earlier we aren't here to police the content people choose to download, but there are organisations that will and will do so using the laws of the country, which of course we have no choice but to adhere to. As such everyone should be aware of what they are doing, what their family are doing and what anyone else using their connection is doing and ensure that they've taken steps to protect their network and their PCs as best they can to stop unauthorised access with appropriate security measures including wireless protection, firewall and anti-virus software that is regularly updated.
Copyright holders are only going to be undertaking exercises like this more and more often, we know of a couple more requests that have come in to us, as well as to other ISPs. Because the requests come from the High Court we have to co-operate with them and we can only expect to see an increase in the number of cases over the coming weeks and months.
PlusNet Product Team
Here at Plusnet we're always trying to use clever open source things to make our lives easier. Sometimes we write our own and make other people's lives easier too!
We're a Yorkshire-based provider selling broadband and phone services to homes and businesses throughout the UK. Winner of the ISPA 2010 'Best Consumer Customer Service ISP' Award, we're proud to offer the UK's best value standalone broadband.
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