Digital Britain: Government vows to cut illegal file-sharing by 70%

he Government believes it can reduce unlawful file-sharing by 70% to 80% by forcing internet service providers (ISPs) to tell users that their copyright infringement has been noted and making evidence of infringement available to the courts.

It said that its policy "needs" to make that much difference, even as it came under fire from content industry bodies for not mandating the cutting off of file-sharing internet users.

In its just-published Digital Britain report, the Government said that most piracy will be wiped out by its plans. ISPs will be expected to produce a code of practice outlining how and when they will inform users of their services that they think the user has been file-sharing unlawfully and how the ISP will share data with the legal system.

If file-sharing is not reduced by its ambitious target, though, the Government said that it will give telecoms regulator Ofcom powers to force ISPs to interfere with the internet connections of suspected file-sharers.

Those include blocking individual internet connections from accessing certain sites or certain types of content, slowing down connections or placing a cap on a connection's bandwidth.

"These powers should be used if, and only if, the combination of measures set out above has been fully implemented but has not succeeded in significantly reducing the level of unlawful file-sharing," said the report.

The report outlined the problem and the Government's predictions for the effectiveness of its actions.

"It is clear that the scale of unlawful activity is a major concern for those contemplating investment in innovative content models that rely upon any form of payment. This is unacceptable," it said. "The Government considers online piracy to be a serious offence. Unlawful downloading or uploading, whether via peer-to-peer sites or other means, is effectively a civil form of theft. This is not something that we can condone, or to which we can fail to respond. We are therefore setting out in this report a clear path to addressing this problem which we believe needs to result in a reduction of the order of 70-80% in the incidence of unlawful filesharing."

The Government has stopped short of ordering ISPs to cut off users who are found to have unlawfully shared files online. Record label trade body the BPI accused the Government of 'digital dithering' because of its refusal to adopt that policy.

"Evidence shows that the Government’s ‘write and then sue’ approach won't work," said BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor. "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."

The Digital Britain report said that its approach would work. "There is evidence that most people who receive a notification stop unlawful file-sharing. This is backed up by survey results which found significant numbers of people say they would stop or significantly reduce their file-sharing activity upon receipt of a notification," it said.

Technology lawyer Struan Robertson of Pinsent Masons, the law firm behind OUT-LAW.COM, said that the Government's approach had common sense on its side.

"Though I would be concerned if the Government was pinning all its hopes on reducing unlawful file-sharing by the very ambitious 70%, I think its first proposals for dealing with the problem are sensible. They at least force all serious action through the existing courts system," he said.

"The powers it will grant Ofcom to force ISPs to interfere with connections could be more of a worry, and there would need to be safeguards in place to ensure that the measures are fair and balanced," said Robertson.

The report will be the basis of Government's policy in digital media, telecoms and information infrastructure, it said.

"Digital Britain is about giving the country the tools to succeed and lead the way in the economy of the future," said Prime Minister Gordon Brown. “This report shows how we will ensure we have a world-class digital and communications infrastructure, that we promote and protect talent and innovation in our creative industries, that we modernise our TV and radio frameworks and support local news."

It proposes ensuring that the whole of the UK has broadband internet access by creating a 50p monthly tax on all telephone landlines. This will contribute to a fund to pay for the provision of high speed broadband across the UK, and will be topped up with surplus cash from the BBC's fund for digital television switchover, the report said.

The report also proposes for the first time the splitting of the BBC's licence fee income. Some of the digital switchover surplus will be used to fund pilots of news services in Scotland, Wales and an English region. ITV recently announced that it would pull out of regional news because of the cost.

The report also proposes a consultation on taking part of the normal licence fee and handing it to independent news organisations to provide public service news content. These could include existing news organisations, it said. That would not happen until the licence fee was up for renewal again, which will not be until 2013.