Internet users who illegally share copyrighted material such as music and films face prosecution under government proposals which will require service providers to spy on surfers.
The communications minister Lord Stephen Carter also called yesterday for every home to have access to a broadband service by 2012, either through a mobile phone connection or phone line that is fast enough to watch the BBC iPlayer.
‘There is no sector with the possible exception of energy that the rest of the economy relies upon more than this one,’ Carter said as he published his interim Digital Britain report. ‘The digital economy is the driving force of much of what we do and probably even more of what we will go on to do.’
In its 22 proposals, Carter’s report spans the communications landscape from the future of digital radio and local newspapers to the possible merger of Channel 4 with the commercial arm of the BBC or a private company such as Channel Five.
It also recommends the creation of a rights agency, funded by the ISPs and the media industry, that would set out a strategy for defeating illegal internet file-sharers, including the use of technologies such as digital watermarking of copyrighted content.
Since last summer the ISPs have been sending out warning letters to persistent illegal file sharers under a pilot scheme brokered by the government, but ministers believe more needs to be done to stem the tide of internet piracy and protect creative industries. A recent study by the University of Hertfordshire showed that only 10% of young people are deterred from file-sharing by a fear of being caught.
Legislation will be introduced, after the summer, that will standardise the current notification process and force the ISPs to collect information about ‘serious repeat offenders’. The companies will then be able to prosecute offenders in court.
The rights agency will decide what level of illegal activity is required before an internet user can be spied upon. Carter, who will thrash out the full details of the agency with the industry before producing his final report in June, has ruled out making sharing of copyrighted material a criminal offence.
‘I don’t think this is as undoable as people have suggested,’ he said of a crackdown on file-sharers. ‘I don’t think anyone thinks that you are ever going to get this to zero but the question is can you get it from an epidemic to manageable proportions.’
Last year a leaked letter from Lady Vadera, the business minister, made it clear that the notification process should help to ‘significantly reduce’ illegal filesharing in two to three years. ‘I would regard a reduction as ‘significant’ if it had reduced the number by well over 50%, and we hope in the region of 70%-80%,’ she wrote.
Carter’s report also makes it plain that a long-term solution also involves the creation of ‘innovative legitimate services to meet consumer demand’.
Feargal Sharkey, the former Undertones frontman who now leads industry body UK Music, welcomed the fact that Carter’s report ‘recognises the scale of the challenges faced by the music and other creative industries in regards to unlawful file sharing. However, we do not believe that the form of intervention proposed – suing consumers – is the best way forward’.
Carter’s plans for universal broadband at about 2Mb per second also came under attack as being too timid. ‘Given that the national average access speed is 3.6Mbps, isn’t the scale of the government’s ambitions pitifully low,’ said Jeremy Hunt, the shadow culture secretary.
Independent analysts were also surprised by Carter’s plans. ‘We were very surprised that the government is only advocating a broadband network speed of 2Mb per second by 2012,’ said Richard Heap, head of telecoms, at BDO Stoy Hayward. ‘Given that a number of other ISPs offer speeds of up to 50Mb per second, this is akin to a snail’s pace and lacks ambition.’
Carter, however, said that many of the 1.75m rural homes that do not have broadband may get it through new wireless networks rather than a traditional phone line and it is harder to set a minimum speed requirement because of the way mobile phone networks operate at peak times.
‘At the moment there is no universal service obligation for minimum broadband,’ he pointed out. ‘We are saying there should be.’
Broadband for all Carter wants high-speed internet access for every home, over a fixed-line network or wireless connection, by 2012. The minimum speed would be 2MB, enough to download a film overnight or watch the London Olympics on BBC i-player. Telecoms firms will be legally required to build and fund a broadband network, though they could receive some public money.
Piracy crackdown Illegal downloads cost the entertainment industry millions of pounds. New laws will force broadband suppliers to hand over their customers’ details to music and film companies, making it easier for them to sue persistent offenders.
Channel 4’s future A second public service broadcaster will be created with Channel 4 at its heart, possibly by merging it with parts of the BBC’s commercial arm, BBC Worldwide. It will be required to show local and international news, documentaries and films – but it is still not clear if it will receive public money.
Content Carter accepted the findings of the Bryon review, which said a ratings system based on age guidelines should be introduced to make it easier to police the internet. It could mean that internet giants such as YouTube would be required to carry warnings so parents can block access to unsuitable material.
Radio revolution Digital radio as a technology is struggling to grow, but Carter rejected calls to switch off the analogue signal to encourage take-up. The FM services which have national reach will run alongside new digital stations until digital covers 90% of the UK or accounts for 50% of all radio listening.
Local news Carter asked the Office of Fair Trading to look at whether ownership rules should change to allow regional press and commercial radio to merge. Economies of scale would help meet the cost of covering local news, which is highly valued by the public