Home > Internet > The Anatomy of Internet Service Provider Responsibility: Three-Strikes Copyright Law Comes to New Zealand

The Anatomy of Internet Service Provider Responsibility: Three-Strikes Copyright Law Comes to New Zealand

Changes in copyright laws are changing the Internet and how people use it around the world. This has become increasingly so since 2008, when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and International Federation of Phonographic Industries (IFPI ) set on a quest to make “ISP and intermediary responsibility” the law of the land in one country after another.

The idea that ISPs should be legally required to block access to websites that facilitate illegal downloading and file sharing as well as cut-off the Internet connections of those who use such sites is not a new idea but one that has been around since the 1990s, but politically impossible to implement. Now, however, as the IPFI states approvingly in its 2010 Digital Music Report, “the mood of change is clearly reaching governments” (p. 3).

Indeed it has. Since the IPFI and RIAA began their worldwide drive, Britain, France, Sweden, Australia, Ireland, South Korea and Taiwan have all adopted new copyright laws in which “intermediary responsibility” and three strikes rules play a starring role. These issues are currently coming to a head in the U.S., where Congress is considering two bills that would extend intermediary responsibility well beyond ISPs, websites and hosting services to include advertisers, search engines and financial intermediaries (i.e. banks and online payment services): the Protect IP and Stop Online Privacy acts.

The most recent convert to the copyright maximalist faith is New Zealand. Its new Copyright (Infringing File Sharing) Regulations, 2011 kicked into gear in September. It’s core features include a three-strikes law that sets out a sequence of progressively more punishing measures: notices, the possibility of a fine of up to $15,000 for repeat offences, and cutting off the Internet accounts of repeat infringers.

In the past few weeks, the Recording Industry Association of New Zealand (RIANZ) delivered its first batch of notices of infringement to four of the biggest ISPs in the country: Telecom, Vodafone, Orcon and TelstraClear. They’ll be sent to Internet subscribers as soon as the ISPs sort out who has to pay what for the delivery service.

The notices target 75 IP addresses on behalf of Universal Music, but one serious question in this is just who does an IP addresses belong to: individuals, a household, an office, or some other unit of organization? Until this issue is cleared up, whole households risk being removed from the Internet on account of one person in it who has run afoul of laws governing just one aspect of life online.

Yet before Universal Music and the RIANZ entered the scene, New Zealand’s ISPs had already noticed something else: a steep drop in international peer-to-peer Internet traffic. It was like somebody clamped down on the country’s Internet connection to the outside world.

Orcon — one of the major ISPs involved — noted that its international p2p Internet traffic had fallen by ten percent. As the second biggest type of data traffic behind streaming video from websites like YouTube, the decline in p2p Internet traffic has been significant.

This is not the first time this has happened, and some argue that it is a recurring and expected pattern. When Sweden implemented its new Intellectual Property Rights Enforcement Directive (IPRED) in April 2009 Internet traffic plunged thirty percent overnight (see here). The outcome left Swedish copyright lawyer Henrik Pontén delighted:

“The majority of all internet traffic is file sharing, which is why nothing other than the new IPRED law can explain this major drop in traffic . . . . This sends a very strong signal that the legislation works”.

Indeed, from the view of the music and entertainment industries, “virtually all P2P content is illegal”, as the IFPI baldly declares in its most recent Digital Music Report, (p. 14). Therefore, suppressing it is both justifiable and a deliberate aim of the new copyright rules. As New Zealand’s Ministry of Economic Development put it, the new law is all about “stopping illegal peer-to-peer file sharing such as sharing movies via BitTorrent”.

Supporters of this approach argue that the ‘graduated response’ approach to piracy achieves its goals “without unduly impacting individual liberties”. The majority of Internet users stop infringing after receiving notices from their ISPs (see here)

These are deeply problematic claims, however. Among other things, they blithely ignore the fact that p2p serves many other purposes than just facilitating traffic in ill-gotten media content.

To take just a few examples, the band Nine Inch Nails uses p2p to offer free downloads of their music. Akamai uses it to create ‘content distribution networks’ for entities like Netflix, Facebook and Amazon that run parallel to the Internet so as to relieve congestion on the telecoms carriers and ISPs networks. The CBC used it in 2008 to deliver an episode of  Canada’s Next Great Prime Minister via BitTorrent; the BBC still uses it for its iPlayer service.

P2P also underpins ancient pre-web 1.0 Internet functions such as Internet Relay Chat, the nasty bits of 4chan, and the privacy enhancing, authoritarian-fighting Tor protocol that has been used in the “Arab Uprising” and by the hacktivist group, Anonymous, alike. In the olden days, media content regulation was seen as more heavy-handed and less respectful to free speech concerns than structural rules that applied equally to all; today, app-specific regulation that deliberately targets specific Internet uses now stand in a similar place in relation to free speech and other democratic values.

App-specific regulation is destined to be fraught with overkill.  While their supporters claim that the “graduated response” and digital intermediary strategy have only a minimal impact on individual liberties (see here and here), a recent UN Internet & Human Rights minced no words when it argued exactly the opposite point of view:

“. . . [C]utting off users from Internet access, regardless of the justification provided, including on the grounds of violating intellectual property rights law, [is] disproportionate and thus a violation of article 19, paragraph 3, of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights” (p. 21).

Article 19, by the way, is the article setting out freedom of opinion and expression rights.

Beyond multiple uses of p2p, and freedom of expression values, others raise an economic argument to the effect that RIAA/IFPI-style copyright laws are broadband Internet development killers. Ericsson’s resident intellectual and policy wonk, Renee Summer, made this point in regards to New Zealand’s plans, warning that “the new rules could slow down consumer demand on the Government’s ultra-fast broadband network”. The point was also made with respect to Sweden back in 2009, when John Karlung of the ISP, Banhof, made the connection this way:

“Half the Internet is gone. If this pattern keeps up, it means the extensive broadband network we’ve built will lose its significance.”

The idea that new copyright laws are broadband Internet killers is appealing yet it may be too early to reach this conclusion because most countries have not carefully tracked the impact. Moreover, the Swedish case muddies the waters because a half-year after the new law was introduced, traffic levels climbed back to their original levels.

Whether this was because people simply returned to their old ways or the steep rise in bandwidth hungry TV and entertainment content (e.g. Netflix, LoveFilm, etc.) being delivered online is still an open question. Yet in all cases, significant changes had occurred nonetheless.

First, ISPs are now in the business of regulating information flows and user behaviours, rather than being neutral points of access to the Internet. Second, people modified their Internet use, adopting a slate of new tools — encryption, anonymity, and other means of circumventing the new rules – that reflected a tilt away from the open Internet towards a more closed system.

Changing people’s behaviour is not too be taken lightly and moving control from the edges of the Internet and putting it deeper into its central nodes by way of ISPs and an expanding array of intermediaries is no more palatable in the 21st century than fifteen years ago when first trotted out in the teeth of fierce resistance. Thus, we need to look beyond the careful stage-managed introduction of new copyright rules to carefully assess their impact on the Internet and the ever-widening range of what we do online.

Today, all eyes should be on New Zealand.

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