IP Enforcement vs. Education, Again

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Well, this topic just keeps coming up over and over again. This time, we visit the lovely British Isles, where the government is going about getting rid of digital piracy in the wrong ways (from Screen Daily):

The UK government took its swig from the poisoned chalice of film and music piracy this week. The result, of course, was a fudge. Most attempts to take on counterfeiting have proved either incoherent or unworkable. Sometimes both.

In essence, it’s an information campaign in which the internet service providers (ISPs) have agreed to send customers a polite reminder that, on the whole, illegal downloading is not really cricket. It points out there are places you can get films legally and that embracing piracy can lead to nasty viruses.

The policy emphasises "educating" customers, which may not please the hawks but should not be underestimated. Awareness of viruses and the ability of third parties to use unsecured wireless connections to access owners’ accounts is no bad thing. And the fact that an internet user’s IP address is as visible to authorities as their house address will be a light-bulb moment for more people than one might imagine.

The kids who have been making merry with the copyright laws on mom and pop’s PC will see the potential for great embarrassment. Having tried unsubtle threats and appeals to the public-spirited morality of customers, the notion that your online activities can be exposed might prove a deterrent of sorts.

I’ve had my problems with education campaigns in the past, primarily because I think that robust enforcement is the only thing that will stop people from downloading free stuff. Why do they continue to do it? Because they can. Yes, it’s that simple.

The UK campaign is only a so-called education campaign, however. If you read that excerpt closely, you’ll see that these messages sent to users from ISPs are veiled threats. Only perhaps the bit about viruses is useful information, and most users are already quite aware of this problem.

Threats might work, particularly if the government follows up with some enforcement action. However, if the only thing that happens is that users get these messages from their ISP, essentially telling them that they shouldn’t download songs and movies, and if they do it might be dangerous, then I doubt we are going to see any significant changes in behavior.

China relies heavily on education campaigns for a variety of policy areas, and the entertainment industry has jumped on board that bandwagon as well with respect digital piracy. Anyone who has been to the notorious Silk Market in Beijing recently has seen the ridiculously large billboard that has Jackie Chan telling us all why piracy is bad. Unless there is some empirical evidence out there to show that these sorts of campaigns are effective, I will continue to think they are a waste of time and money, resources that could be better spent on enforcement.

This UK initiative sounds better than the Jackie Chan ad campaign, which has probably been about as effective as this famous U.S. education campaign, but we’ll have to see whether there is anything behind these threats.