Leading article: The wrong penalty for file-sharing

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The Independent Online

Ministers, music executives and Hollywood film moguls have long tried to find a way of bringing order – in their terms – to the Wild West of the internet, where millions of people continue to download copyrighted material illegally. And we acknowledge that illegal file-sharing is a problem. We also accept, though, that it has an alluring side, which attests to the democracy and openness of the Web.

Which is one reason why we find Lord Mandelson's solution – to cut off the internet access of persistent illegal downloaders – to be an excessive and unimaginative response. Another is a suspicion of Lord Mandelson's motives. As so often where he is concerned, more than a little personal politics would seem to be involved. Given his already extensive portfolio as First Secretary of State, does he really need to add the power to overrule the broadcasting watchdog, Ofcom – which is what disconnecting illegal file-sharers would entail? And the fact that his latest proposal came just weeks after he met a film executive who is also a leading opponent of file-sharing is hard to dismiss as coincidence.

The possible unintended consequences of pushing ahead with the plan should be immediately apparent. Innocent people, who share internet access with a persistent offender, would lose their access, too. Those cut off would also be disconnected from important online public services. Forcing people away from file-sharing sites risks propelling them into the arms of the many DVD and CD counterfeiters, who are known to have links with organised crime. And anyway, what would be to stop them simply signing up with someone else? Would blacklisting be at all efficient?

To their credit, major internet service providers, including Virgin and BT, are already lining up on the side of the consumer. They realise that a more sophisticated approach will be needed to convince the filesharers to desist. It is, after all, not just supposed fat-cat intermediaries who lose from illegal file-sharing, but the artists and producers themselves , with knock-on effects on the quantity and quality of entertainment in future. Any reasonable solution will need every bit as much carrot as stick.

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