Today the UK’s High Court ruled that UK ISPs must block access to the Pirate Bay on their networks. The idea isn’t a new one, Wippit’s CEO Paul Myers first touted the idea of UK ISPs voluntarily blocking access to P2P sites nearly a decade ago. In some ways it is intriguing that it has taken so long for media industries to come round to the idea of enforcement via domain blocking rather than going straight after file sharers themselves. The Sopa / Pipa legislation had many faults but it was markedly more forward looking with its focus on blocking domains than the old school French Hadopi bill which opts instead for the ‘punish your own customers’ approach.
Of course domain blocking itself is beset with challenges and moral dilemmas, but of the tools available to media companies domain blocking can make a pretty compelling case for being the best blend of effectiveness and consume friendliness. After all, the aim of any piracy enforcement is not just to stop the activity but also to persuade illegal downloaders to become paying customers. It is much easier to try to convert a file sharer who is getting frustrated not being able to find free unlicensed downloads than it is one who you have just taken to court and sued for damages.
There are however two key technical challenges surrounding domain blocking:
- VPNs: Virtual Private Network (VPN) applications can enable a user to tunnel out of their ISPs’ network, bypassing domain filtering systems such as BT’s Cleanfeed system which will be used to implement the Pirate Bay ban. Although VPNs have well established legitimate business uses, a number of VPN providers, such as BT Guard, are positioning themselves explicitly as tools to evade piracy enforcement. VPN providers may become the next front in the war on piracy, with media companies likely to start subpoenaing their user activity logs. Some providers have already started putting anonymity systems in place, such as not tracking IP addresses and deleting logs after 7 days. Proxy servers – which can be used to circumvent domain filters – are another option, often used in conjunction with VPNs.
- New domains: the most challenging aspect of domain filtering is keeping track of all the new domains. Earlier this month in Belgium the Antwerp Court of Appeal imposed a Pirate Bay domain block on two Belgian ISPs, a band which covered 11 associated domains. Within days the Pirate Bay had registered a new domain depiraatbaai.be though that was swiftly added to the ruling and Belgian users now get this message if they try to access any of the Pirate Bay domains. The Belgian example illustrates how easy it is for new domains to come into play. Effective domain filtering is an iterative and continual process that can only work well with willing cooperation from ISPs. Going to the High Court to secure a new ruling every time there is a new domain is simply not viable.
The aim of domain blocking, as with all piracy enforcement measures, is not to turn off the tap entirely but instead to make it so inconvenient for mass market consumers that the activity will become unappealing. So the technical challenges need not be fatal flaws in domain filtering strategy if the net result irritating inconvenience for most users.
The Pirate Bay has had the unusual effect of creating a centralization of activity for decentralized file sharing. As networks went decentralized to evade enforcement, the Pirate Bay pulled the Torrent diaspora together to create a nice big juicy target for media companies. Removing the Pirate Bay from the UK web will have a significant impact on file sharing, at least in the short term. There are only a handful of other public sites that index torrent files and have a working tracker, though there is a longer list of sites that have indices but not trackers. If the music industry acts quickly and puts something new and compelling in place to capture the demand of frustrated Pirate Bay users then there is a strong chance that a host of new digital music customers can be won. But that means a new generation of product. The 99 cent download and 9.99 subscription have proven patently uninteresting to the majority of digital music consumers (by which I mean people who listen to music digitally and / or access it digitally).
The alternative is the risk of some of those users simply falling out of the music consumption arena (as appears to have happened in the US) with the rest soon being catered for by a host of new unlicensed alternatives filling the demand vacuum.
A carrot and stick approach is always going to be an evolving strategy. But when the stick changes, so must the carrot.