Online users ‘guilty until proven innocent’

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US and European authorities said they seized 132 websites in a transatlantic law enforcement crackdown on online sellers of counterfeit merchandise.

London - Internet users who illegally download music, movies and e-books will be sent warning letters in a crackdown that could lead to court action for copyright theft.

A new regime to tackle online piracy will in effect treat individuals as “guilty until proven innocent”.

Those wrongly accused of illegal downloading will have to pay a £20 (about R300) fee to appeal in a move that has angered consumer groups.

The controls on internet piracy, due to come into effect in early 2014, were outlined yesterday by the broadcasting regulator Ofcom under the Digital Economy Act 2010.

The same Act includes punishments that could, in future, see accused families having their internet service slowed down, capped or even cut off.

An industry code will require large internet service providers (ISPs) such as BT, Virgin, Sky and TalkTalk to send warning letters to families suspected by entertainment firms of illegally downloading or uploading copyright material. If a customer gets three letters or more within a year, copyright holders such as movie and music companies will have a right to ask for details of the material involved. These companies will then be able to apply for a court order requiring the ISP to reveal the customer’s name and address.

The information would be used to pursue the person involved through the civil courts for damages. However, there are concerns that innocent internet users, for example those whose wireless connections are hijacked by a neighbour or criminal, will be caught up in the new regime.

Those sent a warning letter will be assumed guilty unless they can prove their innocence after paying a £20 fee to appeal to an Ofcom body. Mike O’Connor, of the customer body Consumer Focus, said: “Copyright infringement is not to be condoned, but people who are innocent should not have to pay a fee to challenge accusations. It could deter those living on low incomes from challenging unfair allegations.”

If the new system does not stop piracy, ministers will be able to go back to parliament to enact rules in the Digital Economy Act that could see households having their internet service cut off.

“The ability to appeal is therefore critical to ensure consumers who have done nothing wrong are not deprived of internet access further down the line,” said Mr O’Connor.

Creative industries minister Ed Vaizey said entertainment firms had to be able to “protect their investment”, adding: “The Digital Economy Act is an important part of protecting our creative industries against unlawful activity.”

Ofcom’s Claudio Pollack said: “Ofcom will oversee a fair appeals process, and also ensure that rights holders’ investigations under the code are rigorous and transparent.” - Daily Mail

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