Return of the landline duty?

thinkbroadband.com is today reporting that Internet Service Providers have put the issue of a residential broadband levy back on the agenda in a meeting with Ed Vaizey, Minister for Communications, Culture and Creative Industries, which took place earlier this week. The story first appeared on ISP Review, where there is a little more detail about the meeting.

The story is a little confused, not least by the context of the meeting being intended to discuss the controversial rating system for fibre installation, but ISPs appear to have suggested that the government institute an £8/year levy on residential fibre to the home connections of 1ooMbps.

The purpose of the levy is not clear, and neither is Vaizey’s reaction to what was apparently a ‘lively’ discussion. The last government intended to legislate to raise a £6/year levy on ordinary telephone landlines so as to generate funds to roll out fibre in the ‘final third’, but this was derided by the Tories in opposition, with George Osborne taking great delight in cancelling the by then already-dropped plans in June’s ’emergency’ Budget. It is not evident that this newly-proposed levy would be used in this way. Further mystery is added by the absence from this week’s meeting – apparently invitations weren’t extended – of both BT and also Vtesse Networks, the latter of which has made probably the most amount of noise on the issue of the rateable value of fibre installation which was, after all, the purpose of the meeting [Edit 14 January: ISP Review has since corrected its report to state that, although not being invited to the original meeting, Vtesse was represented, by its Finance Director, at this week’s re-scheduled one].

An £8/year levy on residential 100 Mbps connections isn’t likely to raise much money – though getting the principle in place would be a useful start to raising the sorts of money that would be required to make a serious dent in the ‘final third’. Neither does Vaizey have much political scope for manoeuvre on the issue, given both Osborne’s actions in dismissing the landline duty so comprehensively and the Tories having also dropped their manifesto commitment to reviewing the tax paid on fibre connections. Though this of course wouldn’t be the first policy U-turn by this ConDem government, even this week.

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BitTorrents and illegal downloading

Interesting piece in The Australian last Friday quoting research from the Internet Commerce Security Laboratory that shows that nine out of ten BitTorrent files are illegal copies – and that most of the rest was porn. Given that the same story quotes that half of all net traffic is file sharing, this confirms not only that copyright theft is the major issue we all suspect it to be, but that the expansion of bandwidth via high-speed broadband links needs definitively to proceed hand-in-hand with measures to deal with the issue of copyright theft.

The research is evidently controversial since Village Roadshow, which has funded it, is a member of the Australian Federation Against Copyright Theft, which is currently engaged in what is, in the Australian court system, a landmark case against an ISP which, if the Federal Court comes out in favour of AFACT, would see ISPs liable for their customers’ copyright infringements. Evidently, the case sets no precedence in other legislatures, but it is likely to provide succour to other similar organisations to AFACT seeking to preserve copyright in other countries elsewhere, as well as to set alarm bells ringing amongst ISPs which have sought to distance themselves from activities taking place on their networks.

The analogy which ISPs use is the postal service – which is not liable for illegal material it ends up distributing. This is fair enough, up to the point that ISPs can, and arguably should, play an important role in the detection and control of copyright infringers. In the UK, we’ve ended up with a somewhat illiberal and incredibly controversial measure in the Digital Economy Act (see the campaigning conducted by the Open Rights Group) which may well not tackle particularly well the issue it seeks to address. Regular readers will be aware that I’m generally in no rush to defend the rights of big business – but copyright is a different issue affecting individuals too and the principle that copyrighted material needs to remain protected is an important one to preserve, not least when bit torrents facilitate file sharing between people who’ve never met and who may never know the identities of those with whom material on their computer has been shared. Copyright exists for a reason and loss and damage to the creative arts industry does accrue when it is abused – copyright theft is not a victimless crime. I understand, and support, the arguments that (big business) organisations need to come up with different models for creative content for the internet age – but this doesn’t excuse copyright infringement.

Provided that forms of deep packet inspection are not used, I’m generally in favour of ISPs taking responsibility for monitoring net traffic and pointing out to copyright holders where there are reasonable grounds to suspect that copyright infringements might be taking place. I don’t mean liable, and enforcement must remain within the prerogative of copyright holders – but there must be some role for ISPs if copyright infringement on the scale identified by ICSL in Australia is to be addressed, tackled and brought under control.