Rhodri Marsden: Try as they may, ISPs can't stop the free-for-all

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The impotent, pent-up fury of film and music rights holders has finally found an escape route.

For over a decade a tech-savvy public has helped itself to billions of pounds worth of content without paying for it. ISPs shrugged off the problem, describing themselves as conduits that are no more to blame than an electricity supplier would be if a customer burned the toast. Websites dodged legal action by switching their servers to foreign jurisdictions while laughing and flicking V-signs. And for the most part individual offenders escaped punishment, because there are too many to target. But Mr Justice Arnold, described as a “leading expert on the rights of the performing artist”, has said “enough”; if BT is able to block access to child pornography by using a blacklist, it can block a website that provides access to copyrighted content. And by the end of the year it will be forced to, by law.

The effect, at least initially, will be negligible. Newzbin2 is merely a collection of neatly categorised signposts to downloadable content; the files themselves sit elsewhere, on a global network of computers called Usenet that will remain accessible via countless other means. Like the hydra, or whack-a-mole, or any number of other similes, obliterating one nuisance doesn’t make the problem disappear. But Justice Arnold believes that preventing a small number of offences still makes it a measure worth taking – and on a case-by-case basis, he’s right. There’s no reason why someone should be permitted to infringe copyright if an ISP can stop it by adding an internet location to a blacklist.

But here’s the potential slippery slope. All British ISPs will be forced to block Newzbin2. Other sites will surely follow, be it for file-lockers with legitimate uses (like Rapidshare) or torrent sites (like The Pirate Bay). If the courts can’t cope with the volume and a take-down system is introduced to streamline the process, we’ll be left with a benign internet landscape sculpted by a system of silent censorship dictated by powerful media conglomerates. Meanwhile, internet users hellbent on downloading copyrighted content will simply carry on doing so, as hackers effortlessly circumvent measures put in place by the ISPs. It’s hard to pinpoint who emerges from this scenario better off, but it’s not the average consumer. We continue to demand cheap content, but it’s frequently denied us by companies keener on initiating legal action to preserve business models that bit the dust a long time ago.

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