Virgin volunteers to be Big Brother

According to a piece in The Telegraph this morning, Virgin Media — the Internet service provider run by Richard Branson’s Virgin conglomerate — has volunteered to play copyright cop and yank the Internet account of users who share infringing material. Virgin and the British Phonographic Industry are apparently working out the details, which will likely involve the “three strikes and you’re out” approach.

Under this system — which has been proposed by several copyright enforcement bodies as either a voluntary process or one that could be legislated — Internet users would get a letter from their ISP after the first “offence,” then their account would be suspended (no word on for how long), and after a third infraction they would be disconnected completely. It’s not clear whether Virgin is going to play ball with cutting people off, but the story says that “remains an option” (although Torrentfreak says there could be a silver lining to the Virgin move).

As more than one person (including me) has pointed out, this approach sounds like a great idea right up until you try to imagine how it’s going to work. Would users be cut off for a single shared file — and if not, then how many? Would they be cut off for days, or weeks? What if the account holder isn’t the one sharing the files? How is the BPI going to track activity? How will the money be shared? Determined pirates won’t be the ones caught by this plan — only the unwitting or stupid.

As I mentioned in my previous post on this topic, not only would turning ISPs into Internet police open up a giant can of worms — especially since Virgin would be voluntarily turning over the names and addresses of users suspected of engaging in illicit behaviour — but criminalizing copyright infringement on such a massive scale is all out of proportion with the damage that is allegedly being inflicted on the music industry. And yet, we seem to be facing either an ISP cop or ISP extortion.

The more I think about it, the more it looks like this could be the beginning of Act Two of the music industry’s ongoing self-immolation, with the lawsuits by the RIAA as Act One.

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