Internet providers are to start alerting customers about illegal downloads on their accounts, but is a gentle warning enough to put off pirates? Katie Wright reports

STARTING this month, four UK internet service providers (ISPs) will start sending emails to customers they suspect are guilty of online piracy. Sounds a bit scary doesn't it?

These won't be terrifying 'cease and desist' messages threatening legal action, however. Instead, the emails will politely suggest that "someone has been using your broadband to share copyrighted material", (according to a sample seen by the BBC), and signpost a website offering "tips and advice on how to stop it happening again".

BT, Sky and Virgin Media were expected to begin this week, with TalkTalk following suit at the end of the month.

Online piracy - downloading music, TV series, films and books from illegal sources - is estimated to cost the UK economy £500m a year, so why the softly-softly approach?

"In the past, government efforts to impose sanctions upon internet pirates have proven very unpopular, largely due to the implications for online privacy," says Dr Joe Cox, principal lecturer in economics at Portsmouth University, explaining that it can be difficult to prove that the owner of an internet connection is the person responsible for the unlawful activity.

It's also expensive for ISPs, who have to bear the brunt of legal costs, and who risk losing paying customers if they terminate net connections. "It seems as if a compromise agreement has been reached whereby ISPs seek to inform and educate alleged offenders, rather than imposing strict sanctions."

Part of the government's Get It Right From A Genuine Site campaign, the 'educational emails' have been mooted for several years, so they're sure to be a powerful deterrent to pirates, right?

"This approach of addressing internet account holders directly via the emails when their accounts are used to share files, as well as addressing other members of the public via the advertising and PR components of the campaign, is designed to work together to have a strong impact," insists a spokesperson.

But Dr Cox isn't convinced.

"I believe the deterrent effect will likely be minimal," he says. "There are no punishments or sanctions associated with the communications, so alleged offenders have little to lose by ignoring them. Our own research at the University of Portsmouth has shown that online pirates tend to be well aware of the illegality of their actions and yet choose to download pirated material regardless."

The same study also found that one of the motivations behind digital piracy is the lack of legal alternatives, but with the advent of streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, there's now less of an incentive to turn to illicit sources.

"The Government's own research commissioned by the Intellectual Property Office suggests that (self-reported) rates of piracy have fallen slightly between 2015 and 16," Dr Cox says.

"However, I think it's unlikely that this is due to the Get It Right campaign, and more to do with the rise of better quality and affordable legal alternatives."


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