Illegal file sharing in the UK – Three strikes and you’re out

strike

The Phillies have just won the fifth game of this year’s World Series against the Yankees and people in the UK couldn’t care less. They prefer the more gentlemanly version of the game called cricket. Only when it comes to combating illegal file sharing do UK lawmakers borrow a bit of baseball terminology (the author apologizes for such a sleazy introduction). A “three-strike” policy will soon be rolled out, which may lead to offenders’ Internet connections being cut in 2011. But is that gonna help?

Almost like the French

Earlier in the year, the French legislators had to work hard to get a similar law passed on punishing those guilty of illegal file sharing. If, after a few warnings, the pundits don’t stop uploading movies and songs, they shall be disconnected from the Internet. The UK version of this approach will first rely only on warnings to see if offenders are at all impressed by them. Only if illegal file sharing doesn’t go down by 2011 will the ultimate punishment of digital isolation be applied.

We have to give credit to UK lawmakers for learning from the French. Across the Channel, the introduction of the cut-off law caused an uprising of privacy campaigners and prominently failed the first time it was presented to parliament. In the UK, they’re slowly easing people in before starting to pull the cable on sharing criminals.

However, the problems with this sort of law enforcement will be the same. The French resistance was mainly based on an argument for protecting civil liberties. “We’ll end up in an Orwellian surveillance society”, is what it supposedly comes down to. There’s certainly a deeply philosophical debate to be had about the extent to which the state may monitor citizens’ communication to prevent crimes (not just file sharing, but also child pornography) – too philosophical to go into all the details right now.

What’s left to protect?

Just very pragmatically, then. Why do countries like France and the UK want to disconnect sharing criminals from the Internet? Stupid question, you may think. The slightly naive answer is that sharing copyrighted content is a crime and it’s the state’s job to prevent and punish crimes.

Another answer is that these countries have a strong interest to protect their markets and all those record labels within it. I’m not trying to be too sarcastic about this point. It is legitimate for a state to facilitate a crime-free domestic market (and yes, illegal file sharing is a crime).

But if that’s what France and the UK (and surely other countries) want – a healthy, vibrant market for creative content such as movies and music – should they really introduce laws such as the three-strike policy? Or are they possibly keeping something alive that would be better off reinventing itself immediately?

A better way forward

In the end, illegal file sharing may not really be the problem. The problem is that music companies and other content producers have yet to figure out how to market their material in the digital age. Those who had the chance to enter the market with a fresh approach (iTunes, Spotify) are doing rather well. Those who keep defending their old business model are struggling. Should governments encourage fresh approaches or help defending the old?

In the end, it may not even be feasible or economically sensible to simply pull the cable on hopeless Internet criminals. ISPs would have to do the monitoring for the government and they are reluctant to do so. According to their own calculations, running the monitoring system would cost £2 per broadband line per month. That’s £2 pounds less a month that customers can spend on legal music.

To sum up, encouraging innovation in terms of online business models and payment systems will probably be more effective than introducing some cumbersome, highly unpopular three-strike policy.

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