Consumer Focus and the Digital Economy Act
Published 15:04, 30 July 12
I've written a couple of articles recently about Ofcom's consultation on the implementation of the Digital Economy Act. That consultation has closed now (it was only open for a month), but I'm conscious that in those posts I was making quite a lot of technical claims about Internet security, an area in which I am certainly no expert.
So I was delighted to come across this report called "Online traceability: Who did that?" from Consumer Focus, written by the security expert Richard Clayton, which goes over almost exactly the same ground with rather more rigour than I can muster [.pdf]. Here's the background, which picks up on a number of the themes I raised in my articles on the consultation:
Internet access is commonly shared within a household, typically through WiFi. Increasingly, the same internet connection is used by multiple individuals using multiple computers or internet enabled devices. In the two years since the Digital Economy Act 2010 passed into law, mobile broadband coverage and usage has increased dramatically. Large-scale public commercial WiFi providers are moving to provide internet access in city centres and public transport networks. Private businesses such as hotels and pubs increasingly provide internet access as standard. Indeed public bodies and private businesses such as libraries and internet cafes provide essential internet access to consumers who live in the 20 per cent of UK households which do not have
internet access at home.
The main body of the report runs through how P2P file-sharing systems work, how information can be gathered about people sharing files on these services, and then looks at the many reasons why using that information to pick out individuals who may be sharing copyright materials without authorisation is problematic - not least because wifi networks are eminently crackable. As the introduction to the report puts it:
Dr Clayton’s finding that the subscribers will not be able, on a technical level, to determine which computer in a household was used to infringe copyright, or identify the individual at the keyboard, raises serious questions about whether the Digital Economy Act appeals process can operate fairly.
That's clearly a troubling prospect, and its good to have this rigorous analysis of why the Digital Economy Act is likely to be so unjust if and when it is brought into operation.
It's also worth noting that this is not the first time that the Consumer Focus has done good work in this area of digital rights: I'm increasingly coming across them in a variety of contexts, fighting for the consumer (as you might expect). That's hugely important, because the public's voice has been conspicuously absent in debates about what form the online world should take (just think of the Digital Economy Act fiasco.) The fact that it is not only commissioning technical reports but releasing them (under a liberal licence, too) is a great development, and I look forward to hearing much more from them in the future.