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Copyright is becoming an ever-increasingly important part of contemporary lexicon; in Canada, it’s so important that we now have a ‘citizen’s guide‘ to help ‘regular folk’ with their copyright-related concerns. While most eyes are presently focused on the Pirate Bay trial (Ernesto has been blogging about it regularly since the trial started, Jesse Brown’s recent podcast addresses it, etc.), a major ‘success’ in the war on copyright has actually been ‘won’ by Big Media. Ireland’s Eircom has announced that they will be blocking access to peer-to-peer websites in an effort to limit their users’ access to spaces holding copywritten content. This effort to block access is in addition to Eircom’s agreement that they will cut off users who are found infringing on copyright multiple times (a three-strikes rule).

This development substantially ratchets up the question, “What is role(s) do telecommunications companies play in today’s virtualized world, and global digital economy?” Self-imposed private corporations’ policies now threaten to substantially normalize ‘permissible’ modes of both accessing data and determining what accesses are ‘legitimate’ and which are not.

The companies that are involved in the Eircom settlement are responsible for their private interests, and have obligations to their respective shareholders. How, exactly, are public interests being met though these policies? While I certainly don’t advocate that it is necessarily permissible for individuals to engage in widespread copyright infringement, I question whether private entities should be responsible for defining the conditions of guilt and subsequent punishments. More substantially, I question Eircom’s ability to effectively identify particular individuals who are infringing on content; they can (likely) identify the home modems that are piping data to and from the ‘net, but a modem is not the same thing as the person who is committing infringement. Eircom can claim that an individual is ‘guilty’ of infringement when correlating modems with consumers personal information, but in so doing there is no guarantee that the actual person who was/is infringing is caught. Data transfers increasingly happen using wireless technologies, and someone that isn’t supposed to access the wireless network can (with relative ease) hack a wireless routers using either WEP or WPA security. Thus, there is an open question of whether or not a person ‘accused’ of infringement is actually guilty, and the only way to tell is through a court proceeding. Without judicial review of infringements, or some other form of impressing democratic accountability in the identification of infringers and allocating punishments, Irish citizens can prevented from participating in the contemporary digital communicative sphere without recourse. Eircom is imposing private regulations to address what should be a civil or criminal dispute, and in the process are normalizing the actions of their customers and interfering in issues that are beyond the scope of an ISP as a common carrier.

If many of the proposals to ‘fight piracy’ actually: (a) dealt with the sources of piracy; (b) didn’t have disproportionate effects on people’s lives, I think that I’d have fewer issues with how media corporations are trying to address infringements. Until the companies start using a scalpel do deal with problems (or we see a real reform in copyright law that ends the criminalization of the digital generation), it’s going to be almost impossible for digital natives, network neutrality advocates, privacy advocates, or ‘regular folk’ to support attempts to divorce citizens from the dominant communicative medium of the Western world.