Virgin Media UK working with record industry to spy on and threaten downloaders

Virgin Media -- the UK's largest cable-modem provider -- has decided that it will spy on its users to protect the record industry. It is sending out letters to thousands of customers warning them that infringement has been detected on their network connections (Virgin customers who leave their WiFi open -- as I did, when I had their cable-modem service -- will be collateral damage in this fight). Virgin is under no obligation to do this. The law is clear that they bear no liability for downloading on their network, nor do they have any duty to spy on users or send out warnings. This is entirely off their own bat, and will come straight out of the company's bottom line. Of course, the British record industry is ecstatic and sees this as the first step in getting a law passed that will require every ISP to spy on every Internet user in the country and cut off infringers.
The campaign is a joint venture between Virgin Media and the British Phonographic Industry (BPI), which represents the major record labels. The BPI ultimately wants internet companies to implement a "three strikes and out" rule to warn and ultimately disconnect the estimated 6.5 million customers whose accounts are used for regular criminal activity.
Oh sure -- you download a couple-three songs and we'll come along and cut off the one wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. Real proportional. Link (Thanks, David!)


  1. One has to wonder how this technology will affect ISP’s who claim to be common carriers if they are doing deep inspection of traffic.

  2. Don’t forget, Virgin is also a major record label – so it’s bound to have a biased/protective franchise.

    I’m more suprised it’s happened ‘after’ it sold off the record stores though.
    Perhaps it was ‘persuaded’ into it’s actions by it’s shoulder-rubbing peers.

  3. if these idiot companies fail to realize the enemies they are making are also their only potential salvation, so be it. Go on RIAA goons, screw the kids. You may think you can weather losing their custom in any form whatsoever, but you ain’t seen nothing yet till you have to deal with all the enraged parents as well.

  4. Considering how much (due and correct) scrutiny is usually seen on these pages, I am surprised that such an unreflective and unheeding attitude occurs in this piece and in the comments.

    So Virgin are ‘sending out letters to thousands of customers warning them that infringement has been detected on their network connections’ and ‘The BPI ultimately wants internet companies to implement a “three strikes and out” rule to warn and ultimately disconnect the estimated 6.5 million customers whose accounts are used for regular criminal activity’.

    So what? Some people might not know they should secure their wifi *if* they want to protect their service from others. And – on a related but essentially seperate note – the BPI want to do something about people stealing music. Fair enough.

    I mean, it is stealing, isn’t it? I know record companies do all sorts of shit, but two wrongs don’t make a right…right? Can we look at the ethics coolly, or does the enjoyment of ‘sharing files’ overwhelm the rational mind? It really seems to for many people. I admit I’ve done it, but I can accept counter-measures, so long as they don’t threaten genuinely legal use.

  5. The very fact that over 6.5 million people on just ONE network “regularly” are involved in criminal activity indicates that the law isn’t working. The UK has a population of 60-some million. Should over 10% of the population be in jail?

  6. @arampus:

    What happens when pirating something gives you a better, easier experience for free? Sometimes it’s hard not to justify illegally downloading things. When buying a CD could give you a rootkit and legally downloaded songs are chock-full of DRM telling you what you can and can’t do, it’s hard to turn down a free, DRM-less, higher-quality version of the same thing.

    The music industry should take a note from VALVe when they said, “Rampant piracy is just unserved customers.

  7. So happy with ADSL24. So happy to have given Virgin the elbow.

    And the ADSL24 service is WAY faster and cheaper.

  8. When the free (i.e. pirated) version of something is better value than the one you pay for (i.e. no DRM) then basic economics dictate that the free version will succeed and the paid-for version will fail.

    Did no-one in the record industry ever take any economics classes?

  9. PSYMILEY is incorrect; “Virgin Media” is the company formed by the merger of Telewest and NTL. They purchased the Virgin Mobile cellphone franchise a couple of years ago and decided that of the three brands they owned, Virgin was better known; so they rebranded themselves. They are not, however, related to the record company (or the store chain, which is also, IIRC, a franchise).

    Doesn’t make what they’re doing any better, though.

    (Off to read the TOS for Be Unlimited.)

  10. Does the fact that lots of people do it mean it isn’t wrong, or isn’t stealing? I just can’t see how. It seems to me that the novel ability to intercept intangible data that, assembled, make a song, film or whatever has created psychological conditions by which people can persuade themselves that it isn’t proper theft.

    This, combined with the relative anonymity, has created a situation where millions of people nick stuff all the time – stuff which has been worked on by several people over a long period of time. Does any of this mean the laws should be changed so they can carry on taking the stuff for free?

    I keep getting the impression that many people have blinded themselves to the ethics of all this because they have unconsciously subscribed to an orthodoxy that flatly refuses to be self-critical – possibly because it also has very many good intentions and also because it sees itself as an underdog David against various corporate Goliaths.

    But this is more like the ethic of an impoverished, starving petty thief, stealing pears from a cart in Victorian London, than that of a bunch of overfed 21st century Westerners sat at their iMacs! Aren’t people stealing simply because they think they can get away with it, and attempting to justify it because because of greed?

    I’m no conservative and not in any way related to any of the industries concerned – I just don’t want to see what I think is a lack of reflection on ethical issues, and don’t want to read a Geeks’ Fox News.

  11. Are there any better networks that don’t require you to piss away £11.50 a month for a BT landline you’re never going to use other than for the ADSL?

  12. @masamunecyrus:

    Poor quality product does still not justify taking the efforts of a group of people for free, without their permission, when there is a commercial option (personally I think bootlegging of unavailable stuff is *not* an offence).

    I’m not saying record companies etc. aren’t dicks, but simply that we are in denial about the fact that it is theft. And I’m not saying that it is a serious offence to nick a few songs, but just that record companies *are* justified in taking protective measures.

  13. “Let’s blackmail the customer to buy our product instead of taking more innovative approaches to our market”

  14. @Charlie Stross #10

    Re: Be Unlimited
    A friend received a terms of service violation letter from Be, he was using Bit-torrent.
    How on earth did they assume he was downloading ‘illegal’ content such as old TV shows? Surely not spying on users?

    Unlimited is Limited, war is peace, ignorance is strength, etc, etc

  15. *If you use peer-to-peer applications to copy or distribute copyrighted material such as music, films and software, and do so without paying royalties, you are almost certainly infringing the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988.

    Yeah, right… I’m uploading someone else’s copyrighted material right now, and I’m not paying a single cent of royalties. Legally.

  16. Arampus.

    You (and Virgin) have made one very large assumption here, that if I download it, It must be illegal.

    There is practically no way for a filter to know whether you have a right to a certain file or not, so there is practically no way for Virgin to separate the criminals from the innocents.

    I have a massive dvd collection, but it is currently in storage because I’m living in a different country. I believe the law allows for a digital backup of my media, so there is no difference if I download someone else’s back-up, I already own a license to watch it (and I can guarantee that no one else is concurrently using my copies).

    Similarly (but slightly different), I have a massive record collection, again, in storage. I don’t consider it stealing to be able to listen to the albums I’ve already bought. I’ll grant that a digtal version is potentially better quality than the records I bought, but at 128kbps, I doubt it.

    The real point I’m making is that there is no smart-filter that’s going to check my storage unit, to see if I already own a certain dvd or cd, before serving me with a notice. It can only see files for what they are and presume my guilt.

    So now, as a paying customer (without access to my purchased product), I will have to take extra steps (like encryption) to avoid being labeled a criminal. That seems like the whole DRM debacle, where only the innocent, good-customers bear the brunt of the measure, while everyone else avoids it easily.

    Also, to add to your “bootlegging of unavailable stuff is *not* an offence” comment, I mostly agree, and the internet is full of movies and albums that will never again see a commercial release, but they are still someone’s IP and we will still be busted for them.

  17. @Angstrom

    They don’t spy on anyone, pretty much no ISP has the time nor resources to do that.

    Most ISPs actually already have a three strikes style system, you just don’t hear about it. However, I’ve never, ever seen a connection cut off because of it.

    It works via the standard abuse notification system, addresses listed on WHOIS info for each ISP. The copyright holder, or those acting on their behalf (MediaDefender et al) sit on P2P networks harvesting IP addresses.

    They then WHOIS these IPs, send an automated fill-in-the-blanks response to the ISP abuse address and the ISP essentially tidies it up and passes it onto the customer.

    The issue with the three strikes is really down to the knee-jerk media reaction; in my experience with three different ISPs, the three strikes apply to the same set of files. So as long as you stop seeding that new episode of Lost when you get the warning, you aren’t at risk.

    I’d suggest people actually read the notices that are being sent out as well, they’re far from nasty and actually indicate legal alternatives for buying music, and how to secure your networks.

  18. ARAMPUS @13:I think you’re looking at it from the wrong end.You’re talking ethics while the other people here are talking economics- the way to make unethical things go away, or at least become less prevalent, is not necessarily to hound the people who “did wrong” to an early grave.A much more profitable approach is to make a new model where most people can get the same or better content more easily and for very little cash- Baen books are a very good example of that: instead of filling their e-books chock full of DRM the books are DRM-free, and they’re making money hand over fist.

    If I could buy the songs I want, without DRM and rootkits for, say, 0.50$(maybe even a bit more) or equivalent per song I wouldn’t bother with dowloading stuff from bittorent.Especially if I knew a hefty part was going to the artist rather then to the bottom line of the record industry.

  19. Surely Arampus has a point.

    I wouldn’t have a problem with filtering on a mutually agreed level, if it would be technically possible.

    The ‘mutually agreed’ level would be a constant point of haggling, obviously, but so are many other parts of public life. I could easily live with the mainstream being protected if it doesn’t impede on my internet connection and my torrent use for everything else.

    Leaving the technicalities aside for a moment, I could imagine a mechanism that protects the blockbusters, but leaves the long tail open for free torrent use.

    Of course, should there be a case where some 12 year old gets sued for singing her favourite song on YT, ISPs should be required by law to drop their filters and the public feel morally obliged to download as much material as possible in the next 24 hours – the kind that hurts, not necessarily what they like.

  20. Arampus:

    You have a good point which is worthy of debate.

    I would just like to point out two things.
    1) Theft: no. Copyright violation, yes.
    2) Proportion.

    ad 1) Where I live (the Netherlands) it is legal(!) to make a copy for personal use. I am allowed, by law, to create a 1:1 copy of my neighbour’s CD. I am not allowed to create multiple copies and sell them. There is no thievery involved, my neighbour still has his CD. It’s about distribution, not about copying. Hence, downloading is allowed, uploading is not.

    ad 2) Artists have rights. They need to make money, somehow. I am not saying that is wrong or should be changed.
    A little bit of history. A long time ago, when there was no copyright, artists would create a song or work of art and it could be copied by anyone with the skills to do so.
    After a while, society decided that this was not in the best interest of the public, because artists could and would create more of their art if they didn’t need to have other jobs.
    So, copyright was invented. A limited monopoly on the distribution of art, granted by the government (ultimately, the people.) The goal was to have the artist create more art, for the benefit of society. I don’t know how many years the monopoly lasted at the start, but it’s probably something low like 7 or 10 years.
    Skip to today. Copyright has been extended to 70 years after the artist’s death in the USA. Copyright is now transferable to other people or entities. The copyright holders are suing the people who are not only their customers and only line to making money; these are the same people who should be served by copyright, they should be the ones who benefit indirectly.

    As stated above, 10% of the people living in the UK are now copyright violators. It’s safe to say that the people no longer benefit from the law as it is now. Remember that ultimately, it is the voter who writes the law, and can unwrite the law.

    Again, your point still stands and I think too many people, me included, ignore the fact that most of the contents of their ipods are not kosher. It just needs some back story and isn’t as black and white as you make it out to be.

    In the end, the pendulum will probably swing back to a more relaxed state of copyright. The current situation can’t hold for very long, which is illustrated by the freak moves the industry makes. (Suing customers is not business as usual.) They are truly grasping at straws, the entire business depending on control of distribution and controlled scarcity of the good. Artists are finding ways to create an audience without the industry’s interference. Distribution is a non-issue with digital copies and cheap bandwidth. The jig is up.

    There will be a new and lean recording industry (2.0) that will provide useful and meaningful service to artists. It will not be the pot of gold it is now. For all you free market folks: this is a good thing, the market is cutting out the need for middlemen who do not add anything to the product except price. Services the industry can provide could be shared recording studios with pro equipment and personnel, knowing the right people to get that gig at a large venue, putting up money for advertisements on web and in print, creating a better itunes music store, etc.

    Well, in short, concluding, tl;dr, my point is: if so many people are doing something that is against the law, the law is wrong.

  21. arkizzle: As I said, ‘I can accept counter-measures, so long as they don’t threaten genuinely legal use’. The fact is that this story was about some letters being sent out and the ambitions of the BPI – if it was about innocent people having their liberties infringed or being prosecuted, I would be as livid as anyone else. (I am regularly incensed by absurd violations in the name of domestic security on these pages!)

    Antongarou: Many habitual d’loaders of illegal stuff simply refuse to even address the ethics. Talking economics is fine and very interesting, but it is only one dimension.

    I agree with you that the ultimate end to this will very likely not be through prosecution, but rather a sensible pricing model and greater ease of access to products (…but there will still be thieves, forms of protection and prosecutions even then, I bet.)

    I’m mainly just annoyed at the self-righteousness that infects the tone of some people’s protest against an industry association that is planning to defend itself from plain theft. The aim itself seems entirely reasonable to me.

    The lack of balance and reflection of some people just winds me up! One ‘wrong’ – the industry’s use of DRM etc. – does not, I think, create a just reason to take the product in another form, for free. How can it? And that’s not just a rhetorical question, I’m really interested to hear an answer.

    However, you could, of course, buy the DRM’d CD *and* d’load the other version quite ethically!

  22. To be really pedantic no, it’s not stealing.

    Theft is the removal of someone’s property with the intention permanently to deprive them of its use. If I copy some data from the Interwebnet, I’m not permanently depriving anyone of anything other than the money they might have gained if I decided I wanted to purchase it. Which of course I might not have.

    Sorry, copyright violations are most certainly not theft. They may be wrong, that’s another debate, but the one thing they most certainly are not is theft.

    Indeed, there’s plenty of economic evidence that P2P users purchase more music than average, so the music mafia at the RIAA are shooting themselves in the foot with all this shit anyways.

    Also, of course, Virgin Media are gonna be disconnecting people on the basis of a presumption of guilt based on noticing P2P-like traffic from a user.

    There are plenty of legitimate reasons a user might be using a P2P client. Innocent until proven guilty is a cornerstone of almost all legal systems; why should Virgin Media get the right to ignore it and assume that anyone using P2P must be breaking the law.

    A law they have no need to enforce and no responsibility for their customers breaching.

    I’m sorry, but if Virgin Media wanted to retain my Internet service provision, they’re going the wrong way about it. They’d lose my television subscription as well, were there a proper non-Murdoch multi-channel alternative.

  23. remmelt: I’m okay with saying ‘Copyright violation’ rather than theft, though that is a legal thing and I prefer to keep to more general and ethical terms.

    And I understand the basic history of copyright – the real kick-off came with the rise of printing, when creating cheap, accurate copies of something became a real issue for the first time. We are in the middle of another huge epoch on that theme – highly accurate copies of very sophisticated things, like songs or films, can be transmitted and received globally, by many millions.

    Under these circumstances, I think it’s still fair that those who have invested in the production of, and/or are commonly and legally recognised as owners of, an original ‘thing’ should reserve the right to receive, on their legal terms, some compensation when someone else possesses a very accurate copy of that ‘thing’.

    But I like that ‘one copy’ law, that seems to waive these rights at a very low level where the actual loss is neglible. So I don’t think it’s ‘black and white’, just the opposite! The Dutch law seems quite well crafted to single out mass distribution of copies rather than copy-making itself. Fair enough, I wouldn’t want to go to prison for forging the Mona Lisa if I only kept it in my shed, but would understand if the Louvre were pissed off if I’d given one to every sixth person on the planet.

    However, I do disagree that ‘if so many people are doing something that is against the law, the law is wrong’. If you take the principle that actions taken en masse are justified by the numbers involved, that allows various historical outrages, enslavements and tyrannies off the ethical hook, simply because ‘everyone did it’! People are perfectly capable of doing something wrong (from just a little bit wrong to quite a lot) in their millions.

  24. Apologies – please mentally replace the words ‘stealing’ or ‘theft’ with ‘copyright violation’ etc. in my previous posts! I’m simply trying to focus on the issues of rights and wrongs in certain actions, and don’t want that to get waylaid by the definition of terms.

  25. As I said, ‘I can accept counter-measures, so long as they don’t threaten genuinely legal use’.

    But why should I have to accept them? If my use is ‘genuinely legal’ but I have to go to the same trouble a criminal will have to go to, then we are no better off, except for the corporate IP holders, who are, frankly, getting a lot more legal leniency when it comes to these matters (even whilst they are being accused of similar or worse).

    It will be the exact same situation we have now. Pirates have a free ride, customers are bogged down in jumping through hoops.

    Full Disclosure: I have downloaded things illegally, but I didn’t inhale.

  26. #25: agreed. Tread lightly! We are approaching the Godwin line, a line that shall not be crossed!

    I was hoping you would sort of ignore that last statement, it was intended as tongue-in-cheek, and was too blunt to really contain my point.

    Also, the history part was not explicitly directed at you, but I like to repeat what I know so all the people in this discussion are on the same page. It’s important to know the reason a law was created.

    My point is that the reason for this particular law has been distorted and is now so unlike the original intention that we’re better off without it. I think we can agree that the arts can benefit from copyright reform, and with the arts (or artists) our society will benefit. The monopoly is government granted, which means that the government can revoke it as well.

    Cue disappointment with extension of copyright periods, bought politicians, corporate laws, etc.

  27. Phew!

    Lucky I didn’t post my “jackboots” comment in response to “if so many people are doing something that is against the law, the law is wrong” :)

  28. If the idea that people who had nothing to do with the creation of a product beneiftting from that product without payment is wrong, then why do we accept the existence of record companies anymore? Their money is no longer required to record an album. They were never needed to book a tour. All they are needed for is the money to manufacture CDs/ LPs/ whatever format, and yet they manage to make well over 90% of the profits from any CD sold (all costs, even advances, incurred in the recording of an album typically are to be paid back by the band, taken out of their royalties)

    So you want to be ethical? Download the album then find a way to send the band five or ten bucks. it’s more than they’d get from the label for that CD being sold.

  29. So if the artists (and even the running dog recording companies) are acting against their own best interests by refusing to move with the times, who is giving them this bad advice? Rotting zombie executives, vampire lawyers? How can better advice be got to the actual principals? Who is doing the targeted selling/educating job? Head on conflict just fattens the pockets of the real authors of the current situation. Instead of taking the victim’s role as the end user/downloader/copier how about attacking the problem by seeing the performing artists as duped victims? Who is the real enemy here?

  30. I don’t see how Virgin can do anything with this without violating the Data Protection Act. They most certainly cannot tell anybody else about anything they discover by spying on their users – not the media companies, not the BPI, not even Virgin Media. The law says since they learned who you are when you signed up for the service, they cannot use that information for any purposes other than providing the service, because that’s all you agreed to let them do with it.

    The act has exemptions for criminal matters (copyright is civil), and for court orders (there’s none here). It doesn’t have exemptions for “I can make some extra money by spying on my users and selling the information to people who want to sue them”, because the whole point of the bloody act is to make that exact behaviour illegal.

    They cannot do this without your permission. They cannot require your permission as a condition of service. They cannot sneak a clause into the ToS that tricks you into granting it – the standard required is informed consent.

    If you do get hit up for money by the media companies, then you should (a) sue Virgin for handing out your information, and (b) have the evidence thrown out on the grounds that it was obtained illegally.

  31. My generation has NO representation in parliament. No-one who understands what technology means to us. It gave us our freedom.

    Would MP’s accept the post office reading all mail, BT listening to every phone call?

    If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear, says parliament. Except loss of privacy and freedom. If we have an identity crisis about what it means to be British, it’s because of you. Our grandparents fought for our freedom. Today the biggest threat to our freedom is from within.

    Fuck you, Virgin.

    Labour has taken huge steps to realising Orwell’s 1984.

  32. I have always lobbied for mandatory blood and urine testing of all politicians on a weekly basis. They have nothing to hide.

  33. For those with a choice of ISPs, how about a “One Strike and You’re Out” campaign? Received a letter from the fools at Virgin? That’s you’re cue: leave! Write to your MP, write to everyone – you’re leaving Virgin because they’re idiots. I can thoroughly recommend Be There, but there are others (Sky are pretty decent if they’ve unbundled your exchange).

    But what about contract exit fees? Well, they’re not too huge I don’t think – perhaps organise a fund to help the victims? The faster we can hit Virgin in the wallet, the faster this crap will stop happening.

  34. I’ve started saving up to dump Virgin as my ISP. Due to the Net Neutrality remarks of it’s CEO, it’s interest in partnering with Phorm and now this.

    The only problem is it’s going to cost me £125 to get the BT line switched back on. Then I have to to find another ISP.

  35. well the ISps can’t monitor the doings of all their customers.

    it’s impossibkle so instead they lurch around like a blind giant with a club thumping at people randomly.

    That’s the awy to do it oh yeah!

  36. @ #10

    I stand corrected!

    This show’s the Virgin franchise is brave – because to some people (not everyone), if they get messed about by one ‘Virgin’ company, they tend to steer clear (or best be wary) of another.

    All because they share a logo.

  37. Y gys r ll fll f ****. Bsclly y stl msc by dwnldng t fr fr nd nw yr cryng lk bbs bcs y mght hv t py fr t. B h.

    Y shld b bng fnd! nd dn’t gv m th ‘nfrng my frdm’ crp. Tht’s jst wy f syng d mmrl stff bt dn’t wnt nyn t knw – s dn’t sk!

    Chldrn, wth n mrls nd n sns f rspnsblty. Tht’s th tr lgcy f r scty tdy.

  38. Lks lk smn dcdd t cnsr my lst cmmnt.

    Nw tht’s fr spch fr y! Sy smthng gnst th gks nd y gt yr cmmnt cnsrd.

    1. ash198,

      You can say whatever you want on your own blog. We have standards for civil discourse here, and you failed to meet them. If you want to make a stab at polite commentary, you’re more than welcome.

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