Posted by: talkjack | July 27, 2008

UK home bill payers to receive threatening letters due to allegations from the BPI.

In the news this week it was reported that the BPI (British Phonographic Industry) have done a deal, negotiated through the government, with six of the UK’s biggest internet service providers. This will mean that hundreds of thousands of threatening letters will be sent to internet users ‘suspected of illegally sharing music files’. You can read more about this deal by clicking here.

When I first read this news item I almost shrugged it off as a good thing, i.e. clamping down on thieves. But something caused me to hesitate, so I read the article a second time and paid attention to the language used. If you read the original article I suggest you do the same.

Problems with this approach

I see two major problems with this new practice:

1. ISPs are not actually contacting the people who are downloading or sharing files illegally. Instead they are sending threatening letters to bill payers, who may be 100% innocent. The bill payer may not be stealing music themselves. They may not even understand jargon like p2p and torrents, never mind knowing how such systems work. They may not have consented to it in any way, and they may lack the technical skills to block such traffic. Most home users in the UK lack the advanced technical skills necessary to configure wireless networking routers in a thoroughly secure fashion, meaning they cannot be certain they have blocked every possible technique that could be exploited by a stranger to gain access to their home’s wireless internet connection. This is a widely reported problem in the UK.

2. They say that ‘suspicion’ of the act will be enough to cause a threatening letter to be sent to the bill payer. It should be proof, not suspicion that causes written, recorded action to be taken against a bill payer!

How might the BPI know for certain who is stealing?

Well, unless there is a webcam recording your activity, it is next to impossible to work out whose fingers are typing, or who physically clicked the mouse. One imagines that the BPI will know the time, date, file name and the IP address of the home internet connection. However anyone using a router at home instead of a modem will be hidden behind a firewall so I am uncertain how the BPI intends to track network traffic beyond the router, examine network packets on a private network through to a specific computer. Hacking into a home network like that is probably illegal. In which case they won’t be able to do that, so presumably the BPI may not even know which PC is doing the file sharing.

I am certain that the BPI or the ISP can identify which IP address is sharing music. Based on the IP address the ISP will know who the bill payer is, but they cannot be certain who the thief is. So instead of clamping down on the actual thieves, the BPI will cause ISPs to write hundreds of thousands of letters to bill payers, with the intention of intimidating them.

Yes, its ‘Bully Britain’ again – formally writing hundreds of thousands of official letters to advise British people about the consequences of internet activity in order to make more money for the rich music industry. It may well feel intimidating to be on the receiving end of one of these letters, innocent or otherwise. Remember, these are the same BPI who took CD-Wow to court for selling cheaper, imported CDs in Britain. (Click here)

Will the BPI make a mistake?

It seems highly likely to me that some innocent people will receive these letters. A huge volume will be sent out to bill payers. In all probability some will be the victims of having their wireless internet connections stolen / hijacked by strangers.

I did a test in my own home using a borrowed wireless laptop. It automatically detected three wireless networks and invited me to log into them. I did not try to log in of course. However a stranger in a nearby house, or parked in the street, would be able to use free tools from the internet to attempt to gain unauthorised access to any of these networks. If that happens, the bill payer would be on the receiving end of ay punishment, not the thief. I doubt most home bill payers have the required technical skills to lock down an internet connection 100% securely. After all, many businesses have their networks hacked each year, and they can afford to pay for IT security consultants to perform penetration tests on a regular basis. Home users cannot.

Is there a risk of defamation, libel, slander, or vilification?

These are all legal words. Look up their legal meaning online if you do not know what they mean.

Now then, what happens if the BPI makes a mistake? Computer systems make mistakes, this is a fact. Whether it is due to the programmer, the operator or a hardware failure, mistakes happen regularly in the IT world. Do you really think the BPI will be 100% infallible when even government systems make mistakes?
So, if an innocent person receives a letter, what will it mean?

– It means that the BPI will have written to the bill payer’s ISP and made an allegation of an illegal act which the bill payer did not actually commit. What if someone makes an honest mistake reading an IP address and the wrong bill payer is accused?

– It means that acting upon uncertain information received from the BPI (remember it is suspicion from the BPI, not cast iron proof that triggers Internet Providers s to act) then an ISP will have kept a record against the bill payer’s account and written a scary letter to an innocent person.

– It means that the innocent person’s reputation may have been harmed. Maybe just the customer’s records and reputation with their internet supplier. Maybe with the BPI too. Who else will these businesses share such data with, and how will they comply with the Data Protection Act? I could find no information about this on the BPI website, nor on my ISPs.

Should this ever happen to an innocent person then I wonder if affected individuals will be able to take legal action to seek redress for the stain on their reputation, and for any nuisance or inconvenience suffered.

Are the BPI satisfied now?

No, in fact on their website the BPI say that they want to go further. According to the BPI’s three step programme, they ultimately want to have the bill payer’s internet account cancelled if sending two letters does not work. Seems a bit harsh when the bill payer may be totally innocent of any illegal activity.

Be fair!

In conclusion, I really do think the BPI ought to have complete proof and not just suspicion of illegal activity as a reasonable justificationfor a bill payer to receive one of these letters. I also think the BPI and ISPs need to ensure that letters are sent to the person who commits the offence, and not to the bill payer simply because it is easier to identify the bill payer.

After all, the bill payer may lack the technical know-how to stop the alleged activity. Surely it is not beyond the wit of the technical experts at the ISP to adopt a technical solution to deal with this problem, rather than causing unnecessary worry to innocent bill payers? 

(c) Copyright Talkjack 2009



  1. Hello, We have a similar agenda to you, in some ways, and provide links to Talkjack.

    The music industry is in danger, due in part to the activities of BPI. Revenue has increasingly been lost due to falling sales, their blinkered ‘grab all they can’ attitude will reduce exposure to music and further reduce all sales.

    An example: BPI are aggressively forcing businesses, who are nothing to do with the music industry, to pay back dated ‘performance fees’. These are expensive, what are they for?

    If a firm, even a one man car sprayer, has a radio on, he or she is “broadcasting” music, a “public performance”.

    The BPI now want a fee from them. A clothing maker near me has been charged £600, for having a radio on to relieve his lady workforce’s tedium !

    Most businesses will probably respond by getting rid of ‘piped’ music, thus reducing exposure to such music. Such exposure is a major driver for sales. Someone hears something they like, then buys the record.

    It will if not checked, get worse. If you have a radio on at home and somebody calls, you are “broadcasting” to them. The same applies to any house guests or relatives.

    Sounds far fetched, but it is happening. What is the real difference between, for example, my workshop (a home from home with my wife) and our actual home?

    Without such ‘broadcast’ exposure most music will not be heard during a working day. So fewer people will know of a new song’s existance, thus fewer will buy it.

    The ramifications are obvious, at least to those with a functioning brain. Will it end with music?

    Sorry for a long rant.

    Regards, Ron Lebar. Alpha Entek.

    Talkjack’s Response:

    Hi Ron

    Thanks for your comments, and for linking to me. This comment itself should serve as a reciprocal link back to you 😉

    It certainly does appear that the music industry are a rich and powerful body with the force to lobby at top level to put in place laws which allow them to make huge sums of money out of the public. The music industry often appear uncaring towards their customers in their pursuit of money.

    It is sad to see the rich music industry exploiting their power to milk money out of much poorer ordinary folks. You have my sympathy. An old acquaintance of mine used to manage a shop in the Midlands, and he told me a similar story to yours. It is hard not to feel bullied when the rich use their wealth and power to treat the public in this fashion.

    Indeed, it is hard to feel sympathy for the BPI when they whine about losing money to piracy.

    … Talkjack

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: