Pros and cons: When ISPs boot file sharers

Dennis o'reilly By Dennis O’Reilly

Is it appropriate for ISPs to block their customers’ access to the Internet because the music or movie industry accuses the users of illegally sharing copyrighted material?

Following WS contributing editor Becky Waring’s May 7 Top Story on the matter, we heard from readers both for and against the new policy, which is gaining strength in legislatures around the world.

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Imagine receiving a letter from your Internet service provider threatening to cut off your network access because a representative of the music or movie industry claims you’ve violated copyright by sharing a file without permission. In last week’s story, Becky points out that Comcast, a major U.S. ISP, says it has sent more than 2 million such letters at the behest of the media industry. In other countries, even stronger measures are being adopted by governments.

Rob Martell takes issue with the process:
  • “I appreciate the article, but I am appalled that the RIAA (MPAA, too) gets away with the tactics it employs. Why are governments bending over backwards for this one industry? And they are apparently still suing people, from the last Ars Technica story I saw.

    “Where is the ‘innocent until proven guilty’ bit in there? It isn’t — no due process, no trial, just the suspicion, that’s all it takes. I’ve heard the French law is having troubles, however [according to a May 6 USA Today article], but still. The truly appalling bit is that this snooping is condoned just for this industry.”
Among the readers taking the opposing view is Jim O’Connor:
  • “I just finished the article by Becky Waring and was disturbed by the final paragraph. It was an excellent news article until it took a pro-piracy position. I would think the correct response would be that if you’re concerned about the privacy of your Web downloads, don’t steal.

    “I have seen the attitude for years: ‘It’s only software and I want it, so it’s fine to just take it.’ This now applies to music and movies. I once moderated a pre-Internet BBS games forum (dating myself) and was appalled at the prevalence of this attitude.

    “Many people — myself included — think that some charges for software are excessive, but so are the costs of automobiles and we still buy them (well, most people anyway). I would hope that an industry-leading publication such as yours would support what is legal and not what a group of people want to hear.”
In Becky’s defense, she mentioned the Tor Project, an anonymizing service, for anyone who wants to protect the privacy of one’s communications, not for piracy. Many professionals are legally obligated to keep the details of, say, proposed mergers from becoming public prematurely, and ISP monitoring of communications could compromise this.

Also questioning Becky’s reference to the Tor Project was Fred Sagen:
  • “I’m always interested in the depth of thought that goes into the Windows Secrets newsletters and the valuable information contained therein.

    “So I followed the link to the Tor Project overview and thought, ‘How inventive.’ But then it occurred to me that if this project depends on anonymously relaying an anonymous user’s communications to an anonymous recipient, how do you know that you’re not assisting and enabling criminal or terrorist networks?

    “It seems to me that paranoia over Big Brother’s perceived intrusions into our privacy has allowed us to lose sight of the ostensibly clear reasons that Big Brother has a legitimate need to know what we collectively and individually do and how we do it.

    “I feel that the Tor Project is a knee-jerk response to that paranoia and puts us all at greater risk from those who would do us more harm than any commercial enterprise or government body could wreak upon us.

    “Please reassure me that my fears are unfounded or that your newsletter will more carefully consider the consequences of the recommendations it makes to its readers.”
There’s nothing inherently criminal about protecting your privacy on the Internet. Yes, some people use anonymizing services such as Tor to communicate about illegal schemes. But that’s no reason for legitimate businesspeople to expose all their private information on the unencrypted Internet.

Reader Bob Primak points out one alternative that promises to protect our privacy while offering no safe haven for criminals:
  • “Becky Waring did a good job of presenting a growing threat to personal freedoms and privacy. For those interested in VPN proxy services, the paid version of Comodo Internet Security offers such a service. It has unlimited bandwidth usage per month, costs nothing if the CIS subscription is purchased at the same time ($49 per year), and promises anonymity.

    “Comodo does not promote the service for file sharing and promises to prosecute anyone using their VPN service for illegal purposes. User information is kept on file at Comodo. The service is designed to provide end-to-end security and encryption for public Wi-Fi hotspot users and can be purchased as a standalone [service], also for $49 per year.

    “Other security vendors are starting to offer similar services. Again, the purpose is not to thwart the RIAA or MPAA but to allow better privacy at public Wi-Fi hotspots. The protections against Hollywood’s thugs are only a side benefit, IMHO.”
Comodo may offer a good service, but I must point out that, a major download site, has removed Comodo Internet Security because the program falls under Softpedia’s definition of adware. According to Softpedia’s explanation, SafeSurf — a component included with Comodo Internet Security — is not necessary for normal operation and is intended primarily to generate revenue for the vendor. More important, Softpedia reports that Comodo Internet Security’s installer attempts to change your browser’s default search service and home page, again in an effort to generate revenue. Buyer beware.

Readers Rob, Jim, Fred, and Bob will each receive a gift certificate for a book, CD, or DVD of their choice for sending comments we printed. Send us your tips via the Windows Secrets contact page.

The Known Issues column brings you readers’ comments on our recent articles. Dennis O’Reilly is technical editor of
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All Windows Secrets articles posted on 2009-05-14: