How music companies hunt you down

With alleged illegal file-sharers being hit with fines for thousands of pounds, Davey Winder finds out exactly how they track you down.

Davey Winder
15 Dec 2008

The creative industries of the music, movie and gaming business quite rightly want to protect their copyrighted assets. It's the way they're going about it that's causing concern. With an ever-more aggressive clampdown against those believed to be illegally sharing copyright-protected files, and courts fining offenders thousands of pounds, there are questions that need answering, such as how are alleged illegal file-sharers identified? And how shaky is the legal ground upon which this stands?

Piracy clampdown

Although both sides are paying lip service to the idea of a co-ordinated piracy clampdown, the creative and internet industries still wildly disagree on how to deal with alleged infringers. The government and the BPI (formerly the British Phonographic Institute) have got together with the six biggest ISPs in the UK (BT, Virgin Media, Orange, Tiscali, Sky and Carphone Warehouse) to sign a Memorandum of Understanding, in which it's been pledged to "significantly reduce illegal file-sharing". Potential punishments include a "three strikes and you're out" policy to kick repeat offenders off the internet, connection throttling and traffic filtering, although no consensus has been reached as to which is most suitable.

The BPI prefers the three strikes approach, calling it "a sensible way to tackle repeat offenders", but not all the big ISPs agree. Charles Dunstone, CEO of TalkTalk owner Carphone Warehouse, told us back in the summer that, "we will not divulge a customer's details or disconnect them on the say-so of the content industry, but we will work with rights holders to develop a sensible and legal approach founded on protecting consumer rights and privacy." Little wonder consumers are confused, when it sounds like those at the sharp end can't agree on what should be done.

Currently, the BPI is handing over the IP details of alleged file-sharers to the six ISPs, and getting them to send out warning letters directly. This precedes and reflects the government's "preferred option" in dealing with illegal file-sharers, a co-regulatory approach that puts the obligation on the ISP to take action against customers who have been identified by the rights holder as infringing copyright, all of which is overseen by an official regulator.

Caught in the act?

So how does the BPI determine whether you've been dabbling in illegal file- sharing? There have been all manner of wild allegations, including content monitoring by ISPs and planted music files that report back to base. The official explanation is that "the evidence collected by the BPI is made available by any uploader in the normal course of using a P2P network. There's no 'policing' by the ISP: it is the BPI - and not the ISP - that collects this evidence. Nor does the process raise 'data protection issues': no personal customer information is collected by the BPI in this process, nor is it requested by the BPI."

The BPI puts its faith in the fact that the uploader provides an IP address to enable others to download and share that file. "It is from the IP address that individuals using P2P networks can be identified. It is simple to tell which ISP 'owns' an IP address, but only the ISP knows which customer was using that IP address at that particular time," the BPI states. It collects the IP data by logging onto the network as a peer and initiating a download from the IP address using a semi-automated process. It says that, "the evidence collection process is robust: the technique has stood up to High Court scrutiny on numerous occasions" and insists that "not one of those cases has recorded a mistaken ID, or been successfully contested."

Read more about: