Sunday, February 24, 2008

Deputizing the ISPs

One of the more insidious dangers coming out of the copyright lobby is the idea that ISPs must be made responsible for enforcing copyright law on their behalf by choking off infringing material. It's a rather bizarre concept, no different from the idea that the Post Office must scrutinize every piece of mail posted for signs of illegal activities.

In practice, not only would this a huge burden on ISPs, but it's also ridiculously impractical. Since infringing bytes aren't coloured differently from non-infringing bytes, the only "solutions" are to either non-selectively cut off entire avenues of communication, or make an expensive and ineffectual attempt to analyze Internet traffic, trying to detect infringing material. That sort of censorship is ripe for abuse and prone to errors. And let's not forget the privacy implications of having your ISP actively monitoring every packet of data you send.

Such is the influence of the copyright lobby that the idea is being taken seriously, so it is good to see that British bastion of middle-class respectability, the Guardian, slam the idea:

Some internet users are irresponsible, and their behaviour may even be damaging Taylor's clients. But in seeking legislative relief for this distress, governments need to strike a balance between the wider public interest and the demands of a particular industry to defend an increasingly obsolete business model. And though the record industry is important, it's an economic minnow compared with the IT industry.

An analogy may help to illustrate the point. Millions of people use the telephone network for questionable, illegal or unethical purposes. But we would regard it as unthinkable to impose on phone companies a legal obligation to monitor every conversation.

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