Why The Government’s File-Sharing Crackdown Won’t Work

Business Secretary Peter Mandelson has outlined an unexpectedly gutsy crackdown on illegal file-sharing: from July 2011, if you get caught downloading pirated MP3s, he’s going to come round, in person, and karate-chop you in the Adam’s apple.

OK, that’s not true. But it might as well be, given the likely effectiveness of his actual plan, which is to suspend the internet connections of repeat offenders. Scared? Don’t be. In the unlikely event of your IP address being black-marked, you’ll have the opportunity to appeal to “an independent body established by Ofcom”, at which point the whole process will most likely sink beneath a sucking quicksand of red tape.

I’m all for punishing big-time pirates – but turning off their internet taps is never going to work, especially given that the burden of prosecution will fall on the service providers, who have understandably balked at the likely cost of policing the scheme, estimated by BT at £420 million a year. You might as well try and catch file-sharers with a butterfly net. It’d be cheaper, and a lot more fun to watch, especially if soundtracked by the Benny Hill theme.

Predictably, geek bloggers have seized upon the technological flaws in the plan, pointing out the murky legality of snooping on web users, and the legal impossibility of establishing guilt (In June 2009, a court in Italy ruled that an IP address can identify a connection, but not an actual infringer).

Ultimately, if people want to swap files, they’ll find a way. Why not just buy a pay-as-you-go dongle and use internet cafes? At least that way you can glug a Cinnamon Dolce Frappuccino while bringing the entertainment industry to its knees.

Meanwhile, uber-nerds are muttering ominously that over-policing the net will simply drive pirates onto the “dark web”, whatever that is – presumably some terrifying inverted digital nether-realm where everybody watches porn and is unbelievably rude to each other… oh, wait, that is the internet.

Anyway, the point is: Mandelson’s plan is unenforceable. But what jeering bloggers fail to grasp is that it’s not supposed to be enforceable. It’s a gesture, a way of appeasing business leaders. For years, major labels have longed for a politician with Mandelson’s clout to say something as plain and unequivocal as: “The days of consequence-free widespread online infringement are over.” And now he has. From the government’s point of view, job done.

Fundamentally, downloading cannot be policed. It’s a matter of conscience. It’s your decision. Personally, I believe that illegal file-sharing is wrong: musicians deserve to be paid for their work.

But, you know, there are degrees of ‘wrong’. An up-and-coming band like Mumford & Sons, or a struggling indie-label act like The Veils? I’d buy the album. But U2, or Coldplay? I wouldn’t steal their music (I already own enough billowy guff-rock), but if I did, I wouldn’t feel overly guilty about it.

Then again, a punch in the Adam’s apple might convince me otherwise.