Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Premptive Warning to Virgin Media

Dear Sir Branson, Virgin Media Chief Executive Neil Berkett, Virgin Media Employee or Whomever it may concern,

Recent news articles have brought to my attention the possibility (perhaps already realised) of new policy, on the part of Virgin media (referred to henceforth as VM): to give written warning to customers thought to be transferring copyright infringing materials. This followed by disconnection if they are perceived to have perpetrated further legal violations, if my understanding is correct.

On the face of it, VM seem to be perusing the moral high ground, especially seeing as Mr Branson has already ditched his record label and high-street music stores (prudent in my opinion). There is not currently any precedent in UK law to induce ISPs to 'police' customer's transferred information. But, given Branson is usual a savvy businessman, there must be some (fairly substantial) incentive for VM to patronise, threaten and wilfully loose hard won customers.

Given that the only entities expecting to gain any direct monetary benefit from this new policy are 'record companies', as represented by the BPI (British Phonographic Industry), one might assume there would have to be some form of repayment from the latter businesses (BPI) to the former (VM). As BPI chief executive Geoff Taylor states in a BBC online news article: 

“We believe that ISPs, far from being a simple pipe, can become significant distributors of digital media, and share in the tremendous value that would be unleashed if more music were accessed legally online” [my emphasis – i.e. share BPI's tremendous profit].

VM (and NTL) had seemed, thus far, to have shied away from prying on customer's information, and rightly so. Such a practice would be just as utterly abhorrent as if the postal service where to begin systematically opening the letters it delivers. Even done in the name of enforcing any number of laws, from copyright to blackmail, such practice would provide massive potential for corruption and general abuse, on a nationally catastrophic scale.

VM's get out is that BPI are proposing to perform this dirty task for them. This seems pretty generous, especially considering previous outcries by ISPs that such an undertaking would be prohibitively expensive, or nigh on impossible. Of course, BPI claim that they will only use “publicly available” information, so, persevering with the previous analogy, they would no longer be post office workers opening letters, but instead, private detectives stalking customers and spying on them as best they can without actually breaking into their homes or wire-tapping.

If this transpires there would be an unsanctioned, unsupervised corporate entity, with the interests of particular businesses as it's raison d'etre, paying an entirely separate company to deny services to specific customers. If other UK ISPs followed suit, it would amount to the wholesale rebuttal of citizen's free speech, rights to assembly and expression, for as little as exchanging a couple of songs. And that's only if the system is operated perfectly flawlessly. In practice, abuses such as maliciously framing of a innocent internet user, by a 3rd party, would be trivially easy. In an era when digital communications are increasingly relied upon, the consequences for said user could be everything from disenfranchisement to destitution.

Pursuing the current line of action is a step onto a very slippery slope away from internet neutrality. Customers, UK citizens, will be the first to feel their rights curtailed, but there are plenty of major pitfalls for ISPs too; If Virgin Media are prepared to take responsibility for some of the content distributed by their equipment, will they also be culpable for information loss (or other damages) attributable to malicious code delivered to, or sent from, customer's machines?: Viruses, phishing scams, denial of service attacks, etc.

If customer sentiment, such as my own, is not sufficient to dissuade VM from this these new tactics, in the same way customer service-call charges were dropped (provided the customer has a working VM land line), then I am sad to say I will be forced to end my 8 year long period of loyalty. That includes 4 separate student houses concurrently with my parent's, despite the customer service that was acknowledge as being “crap”!

Yours sincerely,

Richard R Lewis BSc

(Valued customer?)

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Incited by: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/technology/7452621.stm

Not found any addresses to send it to yet though!...

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