Thursday, 5 June 2008

UK file-sharers beware?

It has been quite some time since the demise of the BitTorrent music tracker, OiNK, following the joint bust by Cleveland police and the combined industry bodies, the IFPI and the BPI back in 2007. At that point, only the site owner, Alan Ellis, was arrested but things have changed. There have been 6 further arrests in the last week.

Three of the arrests were made on Friday 23rd May and three more on Wednesday 28th May. The arrested individuals are five men aged between 19 and 33, and a 28-year-old woman.

As usual, TorrentFreak was first with the news:
Suspects were taken to their local police station for questioning and required to provide DNA samples and fingerprints. According to our sources, they were arrested on suspicion of “Conspiracy to Defraud the Music Industry” although this hasn’t yet been confirmed by the police.
Initial reports were viewed with skepticism by many torrent site users. SOme even went so far as to doubt the credibility of early reports. Knifeboy over at Waffles.fm said:
I'll need a more trustworthy newssource before I could even comment on this (2008-05-30 18:55:58 BST)
However, it didn't take too long for the reality of the events to take hold. The Register maanged to get the following statement from the BPI:
The BPI and IFPI worked with the police in order to close down the OiNK tracker site last October. The illegal online distribution of music, particularly pre-release, is hugely damaging, and as OiNK was the biggest source for pre-releases at the time we moved to shut it down. We provided the information to assist this investigation, but this is now a police matter and we are unable to comment further at this stage.
It is presumed that the police have been wanting the former users to provide them with the account passwords so that details can be matched up with the ISP/IP details. Section 49 of the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act can be used by police to force suspects to disclose encryption keys and passwords. Failure to comply with with a section 49 order carries a prison sentence of up to five years. One wonders how long the excuse of password fatigue will last?

In the US last year, single mother Jammie Thomas became the first individual to be successfully prosecuted by the RIAA for copyright infringement. She was ordered to pay $222,000 (£113,085) in damages after being found guilty of illegal file-sharing. The fine amounted to $9,250 (£4,711) for each of the 24 tracks she was prosecuted over.

However, the recent UK arrests are the first time British police have taken direct action against individual users of a file-sharing site (source).

The forums of popular private torrent tracking communities have been buzzing with rumours as to who can next expect a call from the police. Some have gone so far as to claim that this is evidence that the police have very little evidence to go on. It must be noted that what follows is based on little more than web-gossip and second guessing of the police's motivations.

One theory which seems popular suggests think the only reason people are being arrested now is because Allan Ellis' court date is July 1st (after being extended twice) and the authorities, knowing they don't have anything more than perhaps civil charges to bring against him, are trying to intimidate other users of the site into giving them additional info. It has been claimed that the police are asking the recently arrested former users for their passwords and whether they personally knew Ellis.

Filmaddict08 (2008-06-02 02:41:26 GMT) over on Goem has identified a problem for the authorities:
The problem, as far as I see it: if Ellis' trial doesn't go well for the authorities and record companies in Britain, and heavy charges are dropped, they're going to start going after more users. They won't admit defeat and will want to take this as far as possible. Right now it's just in the UK but if the trial doesn't work out the way they want it to - and it probably won't - they may very well hand over all their info to America, i.e. the RIAA.
Whether or not this is true, what is evident is that the paranoia switch has been flicked to "on" mode for a lot of torrent sites and their users as a result of these arrests. This raises the question as to whether or not closed, private torrent communities are actually any safer for users than the open public trackers of sites like Mininova or The Pirate Bay. Are users safer hiding away from huge public scrutiny or are they safer being a a tiny fish in a massive ocean?

One of the dangers of private trackers is that the RIAA/MPAA/IFPI/BPI (delete were appropriate) are regularly attempting to infiltrate the user bases of these communities so as to gather evidence and monitor traffic and releases. Staff are employed whose day job consists of doing exactly what pirates are doing - downloading files. The catch is they are collecting evidence. A reason to be paranoid?

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