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The UK Government Is Already Policing The Internet

The new intellectual property crime unit PIPCU uses threats, not due process, to get copyright-infringing domains off the Internet

On by Max Smolaks 3

Today, a special police unit can decide that a certain website needs to disappear from the Internet, and threaten its domain name registrar into revoking the address “until further notice”, without any legal basis whatsoever.

The name of the unit is PIPCU (Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit) and it has just reported on the success of Operation Creative – a three month long campaign that resulted in 40 websites accused of copyright infringement shutting down, or at least moving to a new Web address.

None of the administrators of the 40 now-defunct websites, nor their registrars, were served with a court order. Welcome to our bright, corporate-owned future.

Looking at you, PIPCU

Here’s how it works: investigators employed by notorious copyright protection vehicles like the British Phonographic Industry (BPI) and the Federation Against Copyright Theft (FACT) scour the Internet, looking for websites that share copyrighted content.

Next, logCityPolicethey forward this ‘intelligence’ to PIPCU, which then decides whether or not it will attempt to take down the site. If the website gets on the blacklist, the unit will write to the alleged offender, politely asking them to stop making money from piracy. If that doesn’t work (I don’t think it ever does), PIPCU will ask a network of over 60 advertisers to stop placing banners and bankrolling a pirate resource.

Finally, after a certain period of time, the unit will send a letter to the site’s registrar, asking it to suspend the domain name. Instead of a court order, this peculiar document refers to an outdated section of ICANN’s Registrar Accreditation Agreement, which states that such accreditation can be terminated if the organisation is found to have ‘permitted illegal activity in the registration or use of domain names’.

In other words, it’s a threat. PIPCU is implying that it can get the registrar’s accreditation revoked unless it suspends the suspected site.

The letter also asks the registrar to redirect users to 83.138.166.114 – a page which displays a PIPCU statement, along with the banners of copyright protection groups and legal content providers. Some would call it free advertising.

Sure, PIPCU has plenty of other responsibilities – like arresting the people that facilitate “illegal broadcasts” of Premier League matches, or cracking down on sales of counterfeit Windows DVDs. However, it is Operation Creative that truly shows the formidable capabilities of this new organisation.

Power Trip

There are several major problems with Operation Creative, the obvious one being the lack of any legal framework. The recent blocking of the Pirate Bay, Kickass-Torrents and other well-known pirate websites was initiated through the courts. In contrast, PIPCU sends out its letters without having any legal authority to act.

hxdbzxyThere is another major difference – unlike earlier anti-piracy campaigns, this one targets domain name registrars and not Internet service providers (ISPs) , which means its effects are not limited to the UK. That’s right, the actions of the new unit amount to policing the Internet, and not just at home, but worldwide.

Unlike in China, where the government is censoring local content it deems detrimental to the well-being of the state, in the UK, the new police unit serves the interests of copyright holders – in other words, media and software corporations. And while it’s important to protect the creative industries, which contribute six percent of the country’s GDP, abandoning due process in the hunt for the pirates puts the authorities on a slippery slope.

If we don’t ring alarm bells now, and we get used to the idea of websites disappearing from the Web on a whim, after a while the same tools could be applied to silence government critics.

An essential part of Operation Creative was the attempt to dismantle the funding networks around pirate resources. The idea backfired spectacularly. Data provided by PIPCU reveals that while the amount of legitimate advertising decreased by 12 percent, the number of links leading to dangerous or explicit websites grew by 39 percent, as the administrators rushed to fill empty spaces with cheaper banners.

In other words, the operation did nothing to stop the flow of illegal cash, but it succeeded in making pirate websites even less safe. According to research published by Ofcom in September, one in six UK Internet users aged over 12 consumes at least one item of online content illegally every three months – that’s at least ten million people in greater risk of a malware attack in this country alone, thanks to the new police unit.

There is one group of people that can stop this madness before it’s too late – the domain name registrars themselves. In the middle of October, Mark Jeftovic, CEO of the Canadian hosting company EasyDNS, vocally refused to comply with a request from PIPCU. Has he suffered the wrath of the British authorities? Nope. Was EasyDNS’s accreditation revoked? No. Is the company still in business? Oh yes.

EasyDNS doesn’t just maintain several domain names on the PIPCU blacklist, it has actually taken in websites banished by other registrars, including the ever-popular extratorrent.com. The company is currently arguing with Verisign about releasing another three domain names stuck in legal limbo.

According to Jeftovic, taking domains down without a valid reason goes against every DNS rule in the book. If more registrars follow this example, PIPCU could be forced to change its tactics.

Arrgh! How much do you know about online piracy? Take our quiz!

Max Smolaks

Author: Max Smolaks

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3 replies to The UK Government Is Already Policing The Internet

  • On December 10, 2013 at 4:35 pm by Mark Pentler

    Um. I’m fairly sure that’s not the City of London Police uniform patch. It’s London,
    Ontario. In Canada.

    • On December 10, 2013 at 9:04 pm by Max Smolaks

      Thanks, Mark! The patch is gone. :D

  • On December 11, 2013 at 11:07 am by Mike

    This is yet another attempt to control the internet. Usually it’s the “protection of children” excuse which is used.
    I see a time when one will not be able to access the site of The Socialist Worker, or, has been pointed out, any site deemed not in accord with government thinking.

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