Internet users suspected of illegally downloading films, music or games face prison sentences and substantial fines under a deal being thrashed out between Hollywood corporations and European governments.
Tough new measures proposed under a controversial copyright treaty are also believed to include secret monitoring powers to catch illegal file-sharers. The proposals have drawn harsh criticism from privacy groups and UK internet service providers which claim the American-led entertainment industry is demanding draconian powers to punish copyright infringements in order to protect its businesses. MPs want the UK to say what it knows of these negotiations and have demanded the Government places details of the talks in the library of the House of Commons.
Under the proposals being discussed, an internet user involved in the transfer of suspiciously large "packets" of data could be secretly monitored and reported by their internet service provider (ISP) to a copyright contact point. Such a referral could be triggered by the downloading of a handful of films or music videos in a month and could lead to legal action being taken by an entertainment company or a piracy enforcement agency. In the worst cases, the entertainment industry would be able to press for fines or prison sentences. Under current UK Government plans, the severest sanction would lead only to the suspension of the offender's ISP connection.
The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) is being negotiated between the EU and countries including the United States, Mexico, Korea and Japan. The powers being discussed go much further than those contained in the UK's Digital Economy Bill which places the responsibility of detecting and identifying minor infringements firmly with the copyright holder, not the ISP. British and European ISPs gave warning last night that the proposals threaten fundamental privacy and criminal-justice rights and put the freedom of the internet at risk.
A spokesman for the UK's ISP Association said that its members had concerns that the deal could lead to criminal sanctions beyond the civil penalties aimed at illegal file-sharing that are currently being proposed by the UK Government.
The European privacy watchdog has also issued an official warning over the threat to the right of privacy and data protection. Peter Hustinx, the European Data Protection Supervisor, said that governments should consider less intrusive measures to combat internet piracy. Prison sentences should be used only as a last resort and only against very serious cases of copy infringement involving big business, he said.
Richard Clayton, an expert in internet security at Cambridge University, said the plans were driven by "Hollywood industries" who had an unrealistic appreciation of what ISPs could do. "It is not possible for an ISP to reliably identify whether a data packet is a Britney Spears film or a home movie of children downloaded for the grandparents," he said. "This is a disproportionate response to this problem that will end up targeting innocent internet users."
David Lammy, the Minister of State for Intellectual Property, has said he could not put papers about ACTA in the House of Commons library because other countries wanted details kept secret. But Don Foster, the Liberal Democrat's shadow culture, media and sport secretary, has now written to Lord Mandelson, the Secretary of State for Business, demanding he "come clean" on what the agreement means for UK legislation.
Freeloading: The threat from illegal music downloads
*The UK creative industries claim that 50 per cent of net traffic in the UK is in fact illegal file-sharing.
*Creative industries bodies argue that such illegal file-sharing threatens 800,000 of the sector's 1.8m jobs. It has been estimated that 4,000 jobs were lost in 2004 as a result of the illegal downloading of music.
*The International Federation of the Phonographic Industry claims that
95 per cent of all downloaded music is downloaded illegally and not paid for.
*The Motion Picture Association of America estimated it lost $2.3bn (£1.5bn) to internet piracy in 2005.
*In 1997, 78m singles were sold in the UK; last year, it was just 8.6m.
*A recent survey found 70 per cent of those aged 15 to 24 do not feel guilty about downloading music for free.