controversial copyright-infringement monitoring technology CView.
CView is a monitoring system created by Detica, a subsidiary of the defence, security and aerospace company BAE, which uses deep packet inspection (DPI) technology that the makers claim can detect whenever certain copyrighted works, such as music, are being shared on a computer network.
Virgin Media and Detica both claim that no personal information is gathered or stored, and that the system would be used solely to monitor the extent of illegal file-sharing on their network.
A Virgin Media spokesperson told me this morning that the situation was complicated, and that Virgin Media (as with all ISPs) has to take into account the current legislatory framework as well as striking an appropriate balance between copyright holders and their customer's needs.
The spokesperson would not be drawn on the future, explaining that Virgin Media's initial decision to trial the technology stemmed from a proactive approach in fulfilling the ISP's likely obligation in the then embryonic Digital Economy Bill. Even though the Bill passed into law in April, many aspects of the implementation are yet to be defined by Ofcom and subject parliamentary review, leaving a great deal of uncertainty for ISPs.
Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group spoke last night at an open session of the All Party Parliamentary Group on the Digital Economy to express concerns about the likely privacy impact of large-scale surveillance and evidence gathering by private organisations required to detect infringement and drive the provisions in the Digital Economy Act. The measures required to detect and prevent infringement are seen by many as disproportionate to tackle what is in effect a minor civil offence.
The use of CView and other similar technology is hugely controversial:- privacy and rights campaigners and some academics and legal commentators argue that such systems could fall foul of one or more laws, including the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 and the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations 2003.
As I've commented in previous posts, large-scale copyright infringement is a huge problem across many industries; from music to books, films and software and there are no clear answers to the basic problem that it is nearly impossible using current technologies - at least without impinging Articles 8 and 10 of the ECHR - to identify beyond reasonable doubt specific individuals responsible for the infringement.
I strongly believe mass surveillance is not the answer, but there is now strong entrenchment in all sides of this debate and it's easy to see that progress could be hampered by the hostility which is clearly visible between certain individuals in opposing camps.
But my 20-minute interview with Virgin Media this morning gave cause for optimism as the spokesperson was extremely well informed and knowledgeable about both the detailed technology and the legal and rights issues, indicating the seriousness with which such issues are now taken and perhaps acknowledging many of the concerns I and others have been raising over the last 3 years.
I was left with the strong impression that Virgin Media are working very hard to strike an appropriate balance, although I of course note that I was talking to a public relations professional whose job centres around selling a positive image!
I'm still concerned that Virgin Media and many other ISPs including British Telecom (BT) in their trial of the Phorm advertising system haven't seemed in the past to share my view that my communications data is mine and mine alone. It's my private data, not a large resource available to be mined by the music industry and/or sold to advertisers.
But I'm encouraged when ISPs are willing to enter into discussions and attend meetings as Virgin Media and at least one other large service provider did at Westminster last night, and I'm optimistic that open sessions will give those who work in the tech industry like myself, as well as rights campaigners and bloggers (like myself), a chance to explain the problems we see with the current legislation.
The Digital Economy Act came into existence at least partly because of the sheer simplicity of the argument by rights holders. People were disregarding the law - and it was costing the creative industry money.
I don't dispute this argument - that online infringement has in all likelihood lead to lost revenues from sales of traditional media, but I do believe the Act is a deeply-flawed piece of legislation.
But the arguments against the Digital Economy Act are about as complicated as any legilator has to deal with. They cover complex legal areas, including European law; the ever-evolving capabilities of internet technology as well as philosophical and moral arguments on privacy, freedom of expression and proportionality of justice.
With such a richly-textured opposing viewpoint it's little wonder that those campaigning against the Act have so far had reasonably little success persuading those who originally supported it to change their mind, leading to the inevitable frustrations expressed so succinctly online (and usually directed at key figures within the BPI and UK Music, to name two institutions).
Clearly the only way forward is for all sides to engage with each other. And in addition I'd also like to see institutions like the BPI engaging directly with technical experts from e.g. the Open Rights Group before demanding action from MPs.
I'd also like to see the BPI - a body representing the music industry - to involve recognised technical experts when they approach institutions like the British Library, universities and colleges to offer guidance on the kind of measures which might be needed to meet these institutions' obligations under the Digital Economy Act.