Policing the web: anti-piracy and beyond

Who should police the web? The head of anti-piracy unit PIPCU has a suggestion: how about the police?

Policing the web: anti-piracy and beyond

The Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) is a dedicated online anti-piracy unit operating out of the City of London Police, which works with industry groups such as the BPI and FACT to target digital copyright infringement.

Funded by the Intellectual Property Office, PIPCU not only arrests copyright criminals, but asks registrars to take sites offline and replaces piracy sites’ advertising banners with warning messages.

It’s remit is limited to online piracy, but there’s more crime than that on the UK slice of the web. We spoke to DCI Andy Fyfe, the head of PIPCU, to find out more about the unit and his thoughts on fighting other online crime.

Q. Rights holders don’t only submit complaints to PIPCU, they also submit evidence. How do you check that work?

A. It’s not a lot different to when we receive a complaint about fraud, in more traditional crime cases. Of course you can use the evidence already submitted by the victim. Rights holders… quite often have professional investigators working for them and do a thorough investigation before they submit the case to us.

We wouldn’t completely ignore what they’ve done but we do have to verify the material submitted to us. We do as much as possible to carry out our own evidential inquiries to reinforce what’s been submitted but we wouldn’t necessarily feel the need just to completely double up all the work they’ve done already. Of course you use that evidence as part of the overall investigation.

Q. What checks do you do to make sure it’s collected properly and not tainted?

A. It’s a little of us building trusting working relationships with the rights holders, generally meaning the trade bodies when it comes to the industry, the likes of the BPI and FACT, who we know quite well. We know their investigations teams, we know in fact that most of them are ex-police investigators, and we know the standard of evidence that they bring to us. So we’ve got confidence… And where we can we test that evidence ourselves to make sure it’s accurate and been gathered in the right way.

Q. PIPCU arrests people over copyright infringement, but also has “disruptive” programmes, such as replacing advertising banners with police warnings. Which is better to focus on?

A. One complements the other. [As] our disruption work, under programmes like Operation Creative, [has] suspended or restricted the operators of large numbers of websites, you could say they are more efficient uses of our time because we can get a lot more done in a shorter amount of time. [With an] investigation, where you’re investigating people and building intelligence and evidence against them, and you plan to go out and make arrests… can sometimes take months, and then you end up in court and it’s a very public, sometimes costly trial process. That is not always the best use of our police time when we’ve got so many issues people want us to deal with.

So the disruption programmes may be a more efficient use of our resources. However, to be successful in the disruption is often dependent on our reputation of being prepared to go out there and if necessary make arrests and conduct search warrants and take people to court. And then people will take us seriously.

Q. PIPCU has been accused by digital rights groups of lacking transparency. For example, with the “disruptions”, there’s no court order before taking a site offline. Do you think your unit needs to be more transparent?

A. Before we launched into the [PIPCU] programme, we took a fair amount of legal advice, and from that we built… steps that would ensure a high degree of proportionality in what we’re doing and that the process was necessary and legally sound.

We don’t enter into the process of putting any website onto the IWL [infringing website list, created by PIPCU] unless they are websites that we ourselves have seen that are very substantially or wholly engaged in copyright crime. We have strong beliefs that we’re not using a sledgehammer to crack a nut, by any means.

Even when a website is placed on the IWL, and the advertising industry is invited to view that list, it’s still a voluntary decision for them to decide whether they’ll divert adverts away from that site.

It is a voluntary code, it’s not something that’s legally binding. Because of that, I think we’ve done all that we reasonably can. We’ve publicised what we’re doing very widely – and hence a lot of these groups you’re talking about are very much about it – and often speak to journalists about it. We think we are being as transparent as we can without giving away more than would be necessary or fair.

Q. Does PIPCU need an appeals system, so sites that are knocked online or have advertising diverted can complain if they feel the process hasn’t been fair?

A. There definitely is. What’s perhaps not been made clear to you by those who are complaining about it is the stages we go through before a website reaches the IWL.

The first step in the disruption process, once we’ve had complaints about our a website and once we’ve done our own inquires as well, [is to] make contact with people behind that website and ask them to cease and desist what they’re doing. At that point, we invite them to engage with us, and explain why they think they’re doing nothing wrong or how they intend to amend their ways.

If we don’t get a positive response – and we give them a fair amount of time to respond – we then go to the domain registrar and the host, and ask them: we’ve got a problem with this website, can you look at it and can you consider taking it down?

Again, we give the host or domain registrar time to respond, and it’s only if we don’t get a positive response from those two steps, that we place a site on the IWL.

So people have already had plenty of time to respond to us and argue their case… even after something’s gone on the IWL, especially if circumstances change. If someone does remove any infringing content, we make sure we constantly remove the sites… so people aren’t left on it unfairly.

Q. Does PIPCU have a good balance between protecting industry and ensuring it doesn’t go too far with censorship?

A. We think we do. We’re always very interested to hear other people’s comments on that, because it’s an interesting debate to be had actually – how much regulation, how much law enforcement there should be on the internet. A very interesting debate indeed.

But… we only take on and deal with websites that are reported to us and are the most blatant infringers that can be identified. If you think about how many millions of websites there are on the internet – and we’ve dealt with just the other side of 100 – I think in proportionality terms, there’s no argument that what we do is reasonable.

Q. What do you have planned next?

A. I’m very interested in having a debate in the media about how much policing of the internet people want. At the moment, there’s almost no regulation and no policing of the internet and that means members of the public – such as you and I – when we’re trying to use it for shopping or to do internet shopping, actually don’t have anyone looking out for our interests to make sure that the people we’re dealing with at the other end of the line are legitimate or reasonable or looking after our data properly.

In the end, that might mean that the internet becomes completely ungovernable, and that no one can dare operate on it at all, no one can dare do their shopping or banking on it. So should there be a certain level at least of – you could say – state inference, in the interest of protecting consumers? I’m very keen to raise that as a debate.

There may well come a time when government decides it’s had enough and it’s not getting enough help from those main companies that control the way we use the internet – they’re not getting enough help from them, so they’re going to start imposing regulations, imposing a code of conduct about the way people may be allowed to operated on the internet.

That time might come, but it’s how much interference the public will tolerate, because clearly a lot of people believe there should be no state interference at all on the internet, but that leads to lawlessness and anarchy.

Q. Would you like to see PIPCU’s role expanded?

A. Our remit is tackling online IP crime, and I don’t think we could start looking at other types of crime – certainly not with our resources – it’s not what we’re paid to do by the IPO.

It’s a debate to be had though. The public would not accept the streets to be completely ungoverned and lawless… so why would they otherwise wish the police to stay out of the virtual world, the internet?

Q. Should we have specialised units such as PIPCU to tackle specific online issues, such as harassment and bullying?

A. I certainly think there’s a place for a unit that could be a centre of excellence or understanding for those issues. But I think in terms of one unit to deal with all complaints of harassment on the internet, there simply wouldn’t be enough police in the country to deal with all that as a problem.

But one unit that maybe is an expert on dealing with this issues, so others could use it as a sounding board, and as an area for advice and to raise their own education levels, would be perhaps a good way to go.

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