Persistent file-sharers could be blocked from using the internet under new proposals to fight internet piracy.
The measure is part of a new proposed crackdown on peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing, where internet users illegally download music, TV, film and other files that are protected by copyright.
The government first announced it would use legal and regulatory measures to tackle digital pirates back in June when it published its Digital Britain report.
At the time it proposal giving the regulator Ofcom powers to force internet service providers (ISPs) to name and shame pirates, reduce the speed of their broadband and block persistent offenders from certain websites from 2012.
However, the government has now decided this is too long a deadline, and says it wants to allow action against persistent file-sharers even sooner.
In addition, it says it may allow for “hardcore copyright pirates” to be completely blocked from using the internet.
Stephen Timms, minister for Digital Britain, says: “Technology and consumer behaviour is fast-changing and it’s important that Ofcom has the flexibility to respond quickly to deal with unlawful file-sharing.”
It is believed that Lord Mandelson, the business secretary, has personally called for tougher measures against internet pirates.
While many people who engage in illegal file-sharing online say they are not hurting anybody, the music and film industries argue it costs them tens of millions of pounds each year.
If the proposals are adopted, ISPs could be forced to take a greater role in the battle against online piracy - a responsibility they are unlikely to relish. Policing the internet is extremely tricky (if not impossible), especially as technological advances make illegal websites harder to track.
The Internet Service Providers’ Association (ISPA) says that suspending the accounts of persistent file-sharers is a “disproportionate response”.
Nicholas Lansman, secretary general at the ISPA, says: "ISPA is disappointed that the government has chosen to take action to amend an open consultation before most stakeholders have had an opportunity to comment on the original proposals."
There are also concerns that cutting off individual’s access to the internet could breach their human rights, as recently ruled by the European Commission.
Meanwhile, Thinkbroadband.com warns that the cost of policing file-sharing users might also prompt ISPs to reduce the attractiveness of their broadband speeds, to prevent users from attempting to illegally download files altogether.
Such a response would hurt all users, not just those that illegally file-share.
And the Open Rights Group, which campaigns to promote consumer rights in the digital age, says: “Instead of letting the market solve the problems, the government seems intent on heavy-handed intervention, which could include disconnection and other account restrictions. This would be in direct contravention of its own goal of universal broadband access, as well as a curtailment of people’s freedom of expression.”
Recent years have seen an increase in the number of legal file-sharing websites, including itunes, 4oD and BBC iPlayer.