The U.K. government has proposed obliging Internet Service Providers to implement technical measures as a way of reducing illegal P2P file-sharing - but only as a last resort if notification letters to copyright infringers fail to achieve results. It is seeking a reduction of 70-80% in unlawful file-sharing by 2011.

There is no government backing in today's (June 16) Digital Britain report for a "three-strikes" scheme that would ultimately disconnect the Internet access of illegal downloaders.

Instead, as stated in the interim report, there is a proposal for media and telecoms regulator Ofcom to require ISPs to notify account holders if "their account appears to have been used to infringe copyright and an obligation to maintain and make available (on the basis of a court order) data to enable the minority of serious repeat infringers to be identified."

This approach, enabling "targeted action" at the worst offenders, is a formalized version of the memorandum of understanding between ISPs and the industry last July, which resulted in educational letters being sent out.

But communications, technology and broadcasting minister Stephen Carter did today outline a "trigger" for the "use of technical measures, to allow the regulator to require ISPs to move to more significant control if there has not been a marked reduction in the level of digital piracy."

The government will provide backstop powers for Ofcom in any legislation, to be used if there is no significant reduction (70%) after 12 months as a result of the warning letters.

Stopping short of a disconnection sanction, as proposed in the French "three-strikes" legislation, instead the technical measures recommended include blocking (of sites, IP address and URLs), bandwidth capping (limiting speed or traffic for a subscriber), bandwidth shaping (limiting the speed and volume of data for specific services) and filtering, or a combination of all these measures.

The report stresses that this can only take place if the combination of other measures has been "fully implemented," adding that including the ultimate sanctions in any legislation will "provide greater certainty for the development of commercial agreements."

"Commercially-led solutions remain by far the preferred approach," states the report, adding that effective new services and education on copyright infringement should be combined with "effective sanction" against persistent offenders.

An idea for a rights agency - contained in the interim report - to bring the relevant industries together to enforce any sanctions and encourage new services under Ofcom appears to have been watered down after its negative reception. Referring to the necessary code of practise for the Ofcom-backed system, the report only states, "We hope that an industry body... will come into being to draft these codes for Ofcom and we would encourage all rights holders and ISPs to play a role in this."

Further consultation will take place by August on the measures the government backs in the report before any legislation process begins. However, with an election due within a year, ministers are running out of time.

Digital Britain also outlines plans to ensure there is universal access to broadband by 2012; a digital radio upgrade, with national analog services switched off by 2015; and a fund for investment in the next generation of superfast broadband, with a proposal for a levy of £6 [$9.87] a year on fixed copper lines from 2010. This would likely be passed on to consumers in their monthly bills.

The proposals on copyright infringement in the Digital Britain report have been described as "digital dithering" by trade body the BPI.

However, during a presentation this afternoon at the Royal Society for the encouragement of the Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) in London, Lord Carter denied it is a roundabout way of tackling the issue. He stated that the government is more sympathetic to the views of content owners rather than those who want a cultural free-for-all on the Internet, saying that "piracy of intellectual property is wrong, in criminal terms it is theft."

Although BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor welcomed the confirmation of new legislation requiring Ofcom and ISPs to significantly reduce illegal file-sharing, he was concerned about the lack of sanctions for illegal downloading.

He said in a statement: "Evidence shows that the government's 'write and then sue' approach won't work. And Government appears to be anticipating its failure by lining up backstop powers for Ofcom to introduce technical measures later. This digital dithering puts thousands of jobs at risk in a creative sector that the government recognises as the driver of the digital economy."

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