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10 Years in Jail for UK Copyright Pirates

Ray Walsh

Ray Walsh

May 4, 2017

Last year the UK threatened to increase the penalty for sharing copyrighted content on the internet from two to ten years. Now, after receiving royal assent on Friday, the UK’s Digital Economy Bill has been signed into action. The draconian new legislation is part of the UK’s continued push – led by the Intellectual Property Office (IPO) – to crack down on piracy within Britain.

The new legislation means that any UK resident who purposely makes intellectual property available online could be imprisoned for ten years. Interestingly, UK citizens can be found guilty even if their actions haven’t directly caused a loss of earnings to the copyright holder. Even causing a risk of loss could be enough for a successful conviction.

Big Changes

The change in the law is a direct result of a report published by the UK IPO back in 2015. At that time, the IPO made the case that the discipline available for copyright infringement (under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988) was too lenient to deter pirates. The new law brings the punishment for online piracy into line with already established UK laws for physical counterfeiting. From the report:

“While there have been prosecutions during recent years, these have either used alternative legislation (such as common law conspiracy to defraud) or been directed at clarifying the civil law position in the European Court.

“It is not clear that alternative legislation provides a satisfactory solution. By definition, it does nothing to improve case law or understanding of the copyright issues.”

That lack of specific legislation caused the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) to push for this new law to be created. In reality, however, there was plenty of legislation already in place for punishing even the smallest of copyright infringements through the civil courts. The change in the law actually has much more to do with pressure from entertainment industry lobbyists.

Taken from original IPO report

Who Might This Affect?

The main risk is to people who use BitTorrenting (peer-to-peer) websites to either upload or download content that is in breach of copyright. This is what it says in the newly passed Digital Economy Bill:

“A person…who infringes copyright in a work by communicating the work to the public commits an offense if [the person] knows or has reason to believe that [they are] infringing copyright in the work, and…knows or has reason to believe that communicating the work to the public will cause loss to the owner of the copyright, or will expose the owner of the copyright to a risk of loss.”

Sadly, the new law makes no differentiation between a member of the general public who shares a single movie and an organized entity that is causing widespread infringements. One would hope that, while somebody running a large-scale operation might be targeted with a ten-year penalty, a member of the public might receive a lighter sentence.

Open Rights Group Campaign

This was exactly the feeling of Open Rights Group (ORG), which had been running a campaign to try to make the UK government see sense. The ORG said:

“Our proposal is to set a threshold of ‘commercial scale loss’, and revising ‘risk of loss’ to ‘serious risk of commercial scale loss’. These are flexible rather than ‘specific’.”

Sadly, ORG’s attempts had no effect whatsoever on UK lawmakers. The wording of the proposed bill remained the same in the finalized version. As a result, any British citizen could now be reported to the police (by copyright holders) for sharing just a single film.

Massive Anti-piracy Crackdown

This is not the only way that the UK has been seeking to combat piracy. UK residents have this year also begun to receive letters for piracy. Specifically, UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are now sending out warning letters to people who participate in sharing or downloading copyrighted content via BitTorrenting websites.

Furthermore, in February news emerged that the IPO had also been conducting secret meetings with Google and Microsoft. The reason for the meetings? To attempt to make the two massive search engines begin to de-prioritise piracy websites from the first pages of their search engines.

The sad news is that the talks appear to be working. Both firms are likely to begin censoring results from the front pages, even if they contain exactly what people are searching for. This could make it much tougher for people to find the websites that they are after.

Luckily, there are private search engines on the market (like StartPage) that want to keep providing uncensored results. The trouble is that those search engines often rely on Google’s (technologically superior) web bots to do their crawling for them. Qwant, for instance, had originally wanted to crawl the web with its own bots only. In the end that couldn’t happen, because it was technically unfeasible.

In the future, independent search engines may need to heavily invest in this side of the business. Not doing so may make it increasingly tough for them to keep delivering more meaningful results to their users than the ones leveraged from Bing and Google.

Should You Be Concerned?

For now, the UK government says that the new penalties are only aimed at large-scale commercial pirates. Despite this, the new legislation raises alarm bells. After all, why wouldn’t the government secede to the wishes of the ORG, unless they specifically wanted to leave the potential for incarcerating the general public within the Digital Economy Bill?

The biggest concern about the bill is that the government could use the law to incarcerate political dissenters and opponents. The UK is going through massive changes and Brexit is going to leave it with far less oversight. A weakened human rights convention and a lack of accountability to the EU Court of Human Rights could leave UK citizens at risk.

With this in mind, and although it might seem unlikely, it is possible that the UK government could suddenly begin using laws like this one to send political opposers to prison for incredibly trivial offenses. With that in mind, you may want to be careful not to irritate the UK government too much, lest you find yourself in prison for having shared some videos online!

What Should You Do?

Anybody concerned about their digital privacy is strongly advised to use a Virtual Private Network (VPN) service. A VPN provides encryption so that ISPs, governments, websites, and other interested parties, cannot see what VPN users are doing online. In addition, a VPN allows people to pretend to be in a remote location, concealing their true IP address. Given that UK ISPs retain web browsing histories, a VPN is by far the best form of protection.

In addition, although the US is slightly different (in that data retention is not a legal requirement), sadly the Trump administration did recently change the law so that ISPs can sell web browsing data to third parties. With that in mind, it seems highly likely that US ISPs will be retaining huge amounts of US citizens’ data, with a view to making a profit from it (by selling it to copyright holders and other interested parties). A VPN is truly the best solution for anybody who wants to keep their data secure and private in any country where that data is being handled improperly.

Opinions are the writer’s own

Title image credit: DANAI KHAMPIRANON/Shutterstock.com

Image credits: Pajor Pawel/Shutterstock.com

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