The Pirate Bay, the world’s best known peer-to-peer filesharing network, is blocked from the conventional web in the UK, or soon will be. The landmark court ruling came about not because the site was found to be subversive or harmful or that the owners were involved in dangerous criminality but because the website facilitates copyright infringement.
The High Court hearing on the 20th of February gave six UK Internet Service Providers (ISPs) with 94% of the UK market until next Wednesday to erase the Pirate Bay from the internet. BT have been given a few extra weeks to consider their position. The Pirate Bay themselves weren’t represented at the hearing, as the 1988 Copyright, Designs and Patents Act doesn’t require it, and it wasn’t deemed “practical” or “proportionate”.
So the biggest web censorship case in UK history, which sets a legal precedent for blocking any website suggested to be enabling copyright infringement, went by without even hearing both sides of the argument. The big film studios were granted the first ever web block, against the relative unknowns Newzbin2, in October. It took less than 6 months for the British Phonographic Institute to stomp on The Pirate Bay. The question now is: who’s next?
Well almost any website could be classed as facilitating filesharing if all you’re going on is a user posting a link to copyrighted material. You could even make a case for web behemoths Google, Youtube or Twitter to be blocked, not that the entertainment industry would relish going toe-to-toe with other expensive corporate lawyers. Much more likely result of the reckless assault on downloaders, is the copyright war being pushed onto another front, to attack the privacy vendors operating from the outskirts of the web.
The Virtual Private Network (VPN) is one such privacy tool. In essence it grants you anonymity, by routing your internet traffic through a black box, masking the IP address that links web activity to your personal computer. A VPN has plenty of legitimate uses: for people circumventing regional web blocks, evading censorship by states less benevolent than ours and simply getting rid of that slimy feeling whereby you know your movements through the web are being tracked by all number of corporate and government data-miners. But VPNs can also be used for filesharing anonymously and as we’ve seen the entertainment industry can and will take action, regardless of how many people use the service responsibly.
But even within the VPN industry there is conflict over how to deal with the new legal sledgehammer being wielded over them. It boils down to a question of trust. Do you trust that the British legal system will use its powers of censorship wisely and responsibly and submit to them? Or do you decide that free speech, privacy and an unfiltered web trump the concerns of corporate entertainment giants and become a pariah?
In the first camp are the British company Hide My Ass, one of the world’s largest VPNs with nearly 100,000 subscribers. HMA was brought to the attention of the mainstream when they handed over user data on members of Lulzsec. The move brought widespread condemnation from the privacy community, as they saw it, they had paid for anonymity and HMA had rolled over and given it up at the first sight of a court order.
The company themselves are rather more pragmatic, they are a business operating in the UK and have to abide by its laws. They clearly state on their privacy statement that the VPN shouldn’t be used to break the law, and that they’ll hand over information on which of their users were connected to the VPN service during a crime if presented with a UK court order. Ignoring the court order only opens the website to lawsuits of its own and risks getting the whole service shut down or compromised by the secret services.
For a service that serves many people in oppressive regimes, keeping the site running is the greater good, and that means compliance with the law. Despite the feeling of betrayal from some of their more vocal users, HMA see their actions as ethical. “There are plenty of legitimate uses that most of our users happily do without any complaint from anyone, it’s a tiny minority of users that are up to no good.” says Danvers Baillieu, Chief Operating Officer of Privax Limited, the company behind HMA. Sacrificing the troublemakers to keep attention away from the whole makes sense, even if most criminals are using fake details to protect their identity anyway.
Instead of risking being blocked VPNs like Hide My Ass are more likely to be brought into the fold with ISPs and told to comply with the block on sites like Pirate Bay. It’s censorship through the back door, but because they’ve set their benchmark against the laws of the worst regimes in the world the British legal system is more than adequate protection for the majority of their users even if it’s not perfect. “Ultimately, if an order was made and it was binding, we’d abide by it. But equally if it became a real problem, we’d have to weigh up our options as to operating from another country.”
On the other end of the spectrum and possibly first the legal firing line could well be the Swedish service iPredator, set up in 2009 by some of the people involved with The Pirate Bay. Their association with “known criminals”, sure to feature heavily in any prosecutor’s case, makes them an easier target than most and an attractive one for corporate lawyers that like an open and shut case to set a precedent and get the legal ball rolling before moving onto more ethically dubious ventures. That said, the Swedish filesharing community is as close as you get to professional copyright fighters and they won’t go out without raising a storm.
Providing privacy is more than a business, for iPredator, it’s a cause. The arguments they use to rebut copyright law and privacy today reflect the big problems of tomorrow, namely the trend towards data-warehousing and excessive surveillance by governments. “On one hand we have piracy of movies on the other hand we have piracy of our privacy by companies and governments. The system works in both ways.” They point out that you’re unlikely to be able to access your own datapool because it’ll be held under a foreign jurisdiction, that you don’t even know when you’re being spied upon and there aren’t any laws holding companies liable for data breaches and what happens to your information afterwards.
As iPredator see it, laws upholding copyright simply have no legitimacy, if their service is used to circumvent them, then so what? Usually laws arise in response to cultural attitudes, take gay marriage gaining legal status as an example. But “in the case of P2P we have laws that are pushed down our throats to define social norms, which is not how it should be, and in essence robs us of our freedom.” said a spokesperson of iPredator. Copyright “theft” in the digital age lacks the injured party of physical theft, it’s a fundamentally different concept to the acts the our laws were supposed to prevent.
Instead of operating on a practical basis, iPredator take a moralistic stance towards privacy and so have engineered a system to protect its users from any and all legal threats. Sweden already has the most permissive internet legislation in the world, but it is the technical details of the site that give most protection. Most of the logs a litigant might want, for example a certain website visited by a user, simply aren’t recorded and any subscription details a user provides don’t necessarily have to be correct. Whereas some might call a business not knowing what its users are up to irresponsible, iPredator would call it essential.
As legal pressure builds up on privacy vendors like proxy services, Tor and VPNs there will be an increasing urgency to conform or to suffer the consequences. Most are likely to comply with the law of their home countries, trading off the loss of reputation with the ability to continue operating, in a legal environment which is at the very least more permissive than wherever else a user might be connecting from. But if a perfect free web is your aim, then the only choice is to keep fighting against censorship for corporate interests, and that will be what keeps driving the anonymising arms race. The harder the law makes it to stay private on the conventional web, the stronger the pressure for entrepreneurs to develop anonymising services and the greater the incentive for users to switch over to them.
Newzbin2 and The Pirate Bay won’t be the only websites blocked from the UK, a second round of torrent websites will surely follow. We can only hope that as the copy-wars drag on, the entertainment industry doesn’t cause too much collateral damage in its pursuit of profit by hunting down privacy providers. Institutionalising the willing VPNs will make them another tool of government and exiling the rebels leaves us without access to what will be the last bastions of a truly unfiltered web. I can’t imagine the country as a whole will mourn the loss of VPNs, but by God will we regret if our government ever reduces us to needing them.