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"Blocking" and Anti-blocking

Friday, May 4, 2012 - 12:04

Given the outcome of previous hearings on copyright infringement, the court’s conclusion this week that the UK’s major ISPs should be ordered to block access to The Pirate Bay was no surprise. However the judgment raises an interesting technical issue. In a previous hearing, it had been pointed out that there was a way to get around blocks on individual web pages that would not be possible if the block instead referred to the IP address of the website as a whole. IP address blocking is recognised as carrying the highest risk of blocking legitimate material (“overblocking”) but it seems that the current IP address of The Pirate Bay is only used by the site, so the judge was prepared in this case to permit blocking of all access to those addresses.

However there are many other evasion techniques that get around both URL and IP blocks and the legal action against The Pirate Bay has been accompanied by a lot of publicity for those. According to a BBC report, there has been a significant increase in their use by young people in recent years. Unfortunately such techniques don’t just open up access to sites blocked for copyright reasons, they inevitably evade all other filters implemented by ISPs as well. So those using them may well increase their risk of exposure to images listed by the Internet Watch Foundation (earlier orders explicitly required ISPs to use the same systems to block copyright and IWF material), malicious code, and phishing sites that steal banking and other passwords. ISPs can no longer protect these users by filtering: all that will be left is any protection that may be implemented on the individual’s computer, smartphone, etc. Techniques such as the Virtual Private Networks described by the BBC also mean that the VPN operator can see all the user’s Internet traffic, creating a significant privacy threat if the operator, or their country, doesn’t protect that information as the user expects.

Such a significant risk to individuals, their computers and – by hindering attempts to control the spread of malicious code – the rest of the Internet seem a high price to pay for free music.