Originally published on spiked.

Over the past month, the UK’s internet service providers (ISPs) have sent letters to more than a thousand people each week who have downloaded or shared copyrighted music via the internet. It is part of a campaign to ‘get tough’ on illegal file-sharing.

The letter-writing campaign is a response to the UK government, which is threatening to bring in tough new legislation to wipe out these online activities. Even before a new law has been introduced, the music industry and ISPs have joined forces to try to stop an estimated six million Britons from downloading or sharing music and videos illegally.

We should all be worried by the end result: under pressure from the government, ISPs are starting to behave like proxy police, increasingly monitoring what we all do, say, buy and share online. Many of us stand guilty as charged when it comes to sharing music illegally online. But penalising people in order to protect the interests of the music industry is not the answer.

A lament for Big Music

The music industry claims that something must be done about online file-sharing. It regards file-sharing as theft and suggests that the recent decline in sales and profits is a product of this illegal activity. But online file-sharing is not the sole cause of the music industry’s recent troubles. People’s shifting cultural interests, changing buying habits and the failure of the music industry fully to exploit the opportunities provided by the web have all contributed to its current crisis.

This failure to exploit new avenues for sales has led to some very popular performers going their own way. Acts like Paul McCartney and the Rolling Stones have left their labels and plenty of others are thinking out loud about following suit. Some have decided to do their own thing; others have cut deals with new players in the market, like Starbucks.

It’s also hard to feel sorry for the music business when they have, to some extent, encouraged illegal downloads. Between 2000 and 2007, one of the first and most popular peer-to-peer networks, Napster, was supported by the German media giant Bertelsmann to the tune of $85million. Only when major players, including EMI, successfully brought Bertelsmann and Napster to book in March 2007 — settling a longstanding lawsuit (1) — did Napster go legitimate.

Nonetheless, the music industry has become increasingly desperate and noisy in its complaints about illegal downloads. As a result, the government has threatened to step in with legislation if the music industry and the ISPs cannot find a way to work together. The government has let it be known that if it doesn’t see a noticeable decline in illegal file-sharing activity, then tougher options will follow. Amongst the ideas floated was a potential ‘three strikes and your out’ arrangement where access would get stopped altogether – although it looks like restricting users bandwidth is a more likely sanction (2). Presumably, ISPs would have to share details of blacklisted offenders to prevent users circumventing the new arrangements.

As a result, the government and the two industry groups have drawn up a memorandum of understanding giving a small window of opportunity to prove that they are capable of regulating themselves. This gave rise to the three-month letter-writing campaign, where ISPs will send semi-threatening letters warning illegal downloaders about their activities (3).

One of the memorandum’s architects, business secretary John Hutton, said the plans were an ‘intelligent approach to tackling unlawful file-sharing by industry and ISPs. It tells consumers what they can do, rather than just what they can’t.’

The whole area of music on the internet is in desperate need of innovation. Some tentative steps have already been taken. In April 2007, record company EMI agreed to provide music to Apple’s iTunes store free from Digital Rights Management (DRM) protection. Previously, music downloaded from online stores like iTunes was locked so that it could only be played on specific devices. The deal allows customers to use their purchases on any device, and share them with friends.

The new memorandum on online file sharing may clear the way for subscription-based, legal file sharing services in the near future. From the point of view of record companies, some revenue is better than no revenue, while such a move would take the heat off ISPs, some of whom are nervous about being forced to act against customers.

Internet Service Police?

But beyond the immediate issue of illegal music downloads, we should still be concerned about the government’s plans to give more powers to ISPs to police the way we use the internet.

We would rightly question the monitoring of our postal system and oppose road blocks if they were placed around our streets, so we should attack any attempt to monitor or censor how we use the internet. As with the postal system, roads and the internet, we should push for more investment, expansion and innovation. But we should also oppose any limits, restrictions and censoring of how we choose to use them—that curtails freedom not just for the few, but for all.

Whether the lawyers and politicians like it or not, the very essence of the internet undermines restrictive copyright laws. The internet works because its architecture is built on copying, sharing and distributing of large amounts of data without any controls or restrictions; a potentially limitless network and one that we should all defend at all costs. And while we should argue for more growth, speed and ubiquity, we must dismiss anyone who presumes they can police our access and use of the web.

The government is effectively saying that curtailment and surveillance are the price we must pay for internet access. I would argue that we should be free to communicate as we please and as far as the ever-developing technology will allow us to – and tell the authorities to keep their hands off.