Consumers charged for copyright infringement

The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills this week concluded its consultation on how to pay for the enforcement elements of the new the Digital Economy Act (DEA).

The Department for Business, Innovation, and Skills this week concluded its consultation on how to pay for the enforcement elements of the new the Digital Economy Act (DEA). The framework established will require Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to send a letter to customers who have broken the law – warning them that an entertainment company has accused them of infringing copyright.

If this fails to reduce national levels of infringement by 70 per cent  in 18 months (which according to most informed opinion seems the most likely outcome) ISPs will then be required to disconnect entire families from the Internet on the accusation of a rightsholder.

One question that was not subject to any scrutiny or reasoned debate during the infamous Digital Economy bill debate was who exactly will pay for this the new framework. Costs could either come from the copyright industries – who are the sole beneficiaries of reduced infringement and filesharing.

The other option is to charge ISPs, who may pass on costs to to customers and make it unaffordable for some, according to Robert Hammond of Consumer Focus.

He added:

“Consumers should not be picking up the tab for the enforcement of copyright laws that will benefit the music industry to the tune of millions.”

The ISP industry and its customers will subsidize multinational record labels and movie companies to the tune of 25 per cent of the cost of sending out the letters and undertaking disconnection in spite of the fact that they are in no way beneficiaries of reduced file sharing. Such reductions only seek to increase the turnover and profits of the content industries. The only beneficiaries of the new framework the music and film industries will contribute three quarters of costs.

Ed Vaizey, minister for communication, said:

“We expect the measures will benefit our creative economy by some £200m per year and as rights holders are the main beneficiaries of the system, we believe our decision on costs is proportionate to everyone involved.”

Mr Vaizey is incorrect in making such a proposition – surely rightsholders will be the only beneficiraies of such a system. Why should the average internet user contribute? The potential size of such a contribution is not an insignificant amount – the Open Rights Group, a digital advocacy organisation and British arm of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, claims that the move will actually cost consumers “up to £500 million” as providers pass costs on to subscribers.

While the LibCon coalition likes to talk of fair markets, it seems bizarre consumers should pay for a framework that even in the words of Ed Vaisey entirely is based on increasing the profits of the film and music industries. If the creative economy stands to gain a net £200m a year from the new framework, why are ISP providers and in turn internet subscribers (the vast majority of which do not engage in acts of digital piracy) being asked to contribute to the costs of enforcement?

The Coalition disagreed with the previous Labour government’s planned tax that would have helped end rural digital exclusion and almost guaranteed universal broadband for all UK internet subscribers. However, the fact that ISP providers and their customers will instead have to contribute to a legal framework that increases the profits of the ‘creative’ industries is no less than a government mandated subsidy.

This is an insult to the digital public at a time of economic uncertainty, increased inflation and wage restraint. While the previous Labour government wanted the burden of the costs of universal broadband access to be shared by all, a laudable and progressive aim – it seems that the only burden now being asked is one where we all contribute to the maintaining of an increasingly unprofitable industry.

This seems an odd measure to be a taken by a Conservative government and at odds with their supposedly liberal economic instincts. After all, under the last Tory government, British Coal didn’t seem to warrent a public subsidy. In Cameron and Clegg’s brave new world, the music of Cheryl Cole seemingly does.

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