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British ISPs stand firm after file-sharing ruling

Internet service providers maintain they should not be liable for illegal P2P file-sharing over their networks.

A group representing Internet service providers in the U.K. has reasserted that ISPs should not be responsible for illegal file-sharing that takes place over their networks.

Speaking Wednesday in the wake of a recent ruling in a Belgian court, a representative of the Internet Service Providers' Association maintained that ISPs should not be "set up to play judge and jury" over alleged copyright infringement.

Last week, a Belgian court ruled that the ISP Scarlet--formerly Tiscali--had the technology available to it to block or filter copyright-infringing material being sent over its network via peer-to-peer traffic, and had six months to start doing so.

The judgment drew praise from John Kennedy, chief executive of the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry, who said it proved that "the Internet's gatekeepers, the ISPs, have a responsibility to help control copyright-infringing traffic on their networks."

The case sets a precedent in European law but seems likely to be challenged. However, a similar decision won't surface in the U.K. anytime soon, according to telecommunications lawyer Danny Preiskel of Preiskel & Co.

"I think we are a way away from reaching a similar decision in the U.K. in imposing such liability," he told ZDNet UK, adding that such a case in the U.K. would be "fiercely resisted" by ISPs.

But ISPs in the U.K. are opening themselves up to some degree of liability by moving away from being providers of "pure conduits." They may be responsible for anything defamatory contained within the value-added content that many ISPs are now trying to sell to their customers, added Preiskel.

An ISPA representative noted that "ISPs are recognized in the eCommerce Directive (of 2002) as mere conduits of information."

The representative also responded to U.K. Conservative Party leader David Cameron's recent claims that, if ISPs could remove child pornography from their servers, they should also be willing to shut down the transmission of copyright-infringing material.

"We are talking about different things here--child pornography is criminal and copyright infringement can be a civil case," the ISPA representative said.

"ISPs shouldn't be set up to play judge and jury," the representative continued. "What we wouldn't want is corporate censorship. Any kind of censorship of the Internet has to be at the government level. ISPs are not law enforcement. We understand that ISPs play a part in combating instances of illegal activity on the Internet, which is why we engage with rights holders and work with government authorities on that basis, but we wouldn't say we're the gatekeepers of the Internet. The people responsible for unlawful content going up on the Internet are the people who put it there."

David Meyer of ZDNet UK reported from London.