People who repeatedly swap and download copyrighted films and music could have their internet accounts suspended, after the Government toughened up plans to fight online piracy.
Stephen Timms, minister for Digital Britain, said the proposals previously being considered by the Government, which only went as far as possibly restricting users’ broadband speed, “could delay action, impacting unfairly upon rights-holders”.
He unveiled new plans designed to allow “swifter and more flexible measures” to tackle illegal file-sharing, including temporarily suspending an individual’s internet account or blocking access to download sites.
The proposal received a cool response from West Midlands MP Tom Watson (Lab West Bromwich East), the former Cabinet Office Minister who is pushing Ministers to rethink their attitude to file-sharing.
Writing on his blog, he said: “I’m disappointed with today’s announcement on the revisions to the file-sharing consultation as it will lead to accusations that the Government has been captured by the big lobby operations of powerful rights-holders.”
He was referring to claims that Business Secretary Lord Mandelson reached a secret deal to protect the film and music industries with Hollywood mogul David Geffen. According to reports Lord Mandelson met Mr Geffen in Corfu earlier this month and then ordered civil servants to toughen up the proposals on illegal file-sharers.
Mr Watson has called on Ministers to focus on finding ways to help creative industries distribute content legally on the internet. He has also warned that cracking down on the estimated seven million people who share copyrighted material in the UK would be politically damaging.
But Mr Timms said the new and tougher policy was prompted by a public consultation which began in June.
He said: “Technology and consumer behaviour is fast-changing and it’s important that Ofcom has the flexibility to respond quickly to deal with unlawful file-sharing.
“We’ve been listening carefully to responses to the consultation this far, and it’s become clear there are widespread concerns that the plans as they stand could delay action, impacting unfairly upon rights-holders.
“We look forward to hearing views on our new ideas, which along with those already received, will help us determine the best way to tackle this complex challenge.”
The Government is also considering giving power to Ministers to direct communications watchdog Ofcom to introduce technical measures to clamp down on piracy.
This would involve an obligation on internet service providers to take action against individual, repeat infringers.
The previous proposals required Ofcom to undergo a detailed process in order to ascertain what technical measures were required, meaning the earliest that measures could come into play was during 2012.
But a Department for Business spokesman said the Government now believed this “might be too long to wait given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy”.
Action could be taken sooner under the new proposals, he said.
The British Phonographic Industry, which represents the recorded music industry, welcomed the move as a helpful “step forward” in the fight against piracy.
BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor said: “Digital piracy is a serious problem. The solution must be effective, proportionate and dissuasive.”
But Virgin Media, which provides cable television and broadband internet services to the public, warned that “persuasion, not coercion” was the key.
A spokeswoman said: “The Government should be ensuring a balance of action against repeat infringers and the rapid development of new legitimate services that provide a compelling alternative to illegal file-sharing.
“We are also concerned that the Government’s funding proposals would increase costs and penalise internet service providers who want to invest in making implementation efficient, while doing little to encourage rights-holders to use the regime in a proportionate way and complicating the evolution of new legitimate services.”
Digital and satellite television providers such as Virgin are affected by piracy because popular American television shows are often made available for download by “pirates” before they are broadcast on subscription-only channels in the UK.
Opponents of laws cracking down on file-sharing are to stand in the next General Election as Pirate Party candidates. Party leader Andrew Robinson plans to stand in his home city of Worcester.