Cyber Clinic: Does the Digital Economy Act mean the end of Rapidshare?

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The Independent Tech

Someone told me last week that Daryl Hall recorded a great album in the 1970s with Robert Fripp, and that's the kind of ephemera that gets a 38-year-old man such as myself mildly interested. Google first led me to Amazon (cheapest copy £26.95, second-hand), and then to various music bloggers praising the record and linking to free downloads of the album that they'd placed on file-hosting services such as Rapidshare and Megaupload. It's little wonder that Sony (which owns the rights to that record) and other media giants have lobbied for a crackdown on these "cyberlockers", as Peter Mandelson referred to them recently when assessing potential targets for the Digital Economy Act.

Cyberlockers have perfectly legitimate uses. If a file is too big to email to someone, uploading it somewhere is your only online alternative. But the sheer volume of data moving across the net makes this difficult to police, and cyberlocker services try to stress their benign role in proceedings – for example by reminding the world that they don't allow direct searches of their servers for copyrighted material. But as I found, links to said files can be found incredibly easily using Google or dedicated engines such as Filestube.

So the Digital Economy Act now has provisions within it to potentially allow courts to force service providers to block access to cyberlockers. Rapidshare, having seen this coming for some time, has started terminating the accounts of persistent offenders and has suggested a plan by which it could distribute licensed content, too. But what does this mean for those who use these services to share files legally? The answer: if one service gets blocked, there'll always be another way. After all, we're told that computing in "the cloud" – ie, files being stored online rather than on disk – is the future. And simple procedures such as encryption, password protection and renaming files will ensure that pirates will for ever run rings around any legal restrictions. Some say that Mandelson's efforts are like trying to block holes in a colander using his fingers; but it's more like him trying to prevent traffic leaving London by standing on Parliament Square in a luminous jacket and carrying a sign saying "please stop".

As a chap who wants to do the right thing, I found the album on a legitimate download site and paid £5.99 for it. But instead of trying – and failing – to stop us downloading music for free, media companies have to make their more obscure content easier to obtain than illegally hosted versions.

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