With the government cracking down on illegal filesharing, PC Advisor explains why securing your wireless network can help you avoid a £500 fine.

Most of us know that sharing content for which we don’t hold the copyright is illegal. But dated UK legislation has failed to keep online piracy in check.

The government wants to change all that. One strand of its plan to tackle filesharing is the 'three strikes' rule, revealed by Lord Mandelson in October and expected to make it into the government’s Digital Economy Act as we went to press. Under the proposals, content thieves will be sent warning letters and repeat offenders will face having their internet service disconnected.

DEA: Wrongly accused

Every PC uses a unique IP address when it connects to the web, and it’s this that’s used to track down wrongdoers. But innocent users have also been on the receiving end of the accusations. According to Which? magazine, 150 customers have received a warning letter from law firm ACS:Law that recommends settling out of court and paying a £500 penalty.

Identifying an IP address associated with illegal filesharing won’t always lead an ISP to the culprit. If your wireless network is left unsecured, anyone can piggyback the connection and download files anonymously.

ISP TalkTalk has warned that two in five Brits are at risk of having their Wi-Fi connection hijacked. The ISP found that 40 percent of customers it asked were using either weak wired equivalent privacy (WEP) security for their connection, or none at all.

You could also be wrongfully accused of piracy if another member of the household illegally downloads content.

DEA: No way out

ACS:Law partner Andrew Crossley defended the company’s actions.

“Filesharing is illegal and it costs the media industry billions of pounds in lost sales. Our clients are entitled to pursue instances of identified infringement with all vigour and determination. My firm has been retained to help them achieve that,” he said.

 “We invite [those accused of filesharing] to enter into a compromise agreement, thus avoiding what could otherwise prove to be costly litigation,” said Crossley.

ACS:Law said the information gathered by various data-monitoring companies on behalf of the copyright holder was accurate, and claimed that their methods had been scrutinised by independent experts.

With that in mind, it’s difficult for the accused to successfully deny liability. “It’s insufficient to say that it did not happen, as we have evidence that it did,” Crossley said.

Neither is it sufficient to blame the activity on a child, who should be under the parent’s supervision, he reasoned.

Crossley also ruled out suggestions of ‘spoofing’ IP addresses as a legitimate argument, with the evidence gathered at the time establishing the true IP address.

In fact, Which? technology editor Matthew Bath believes that many recipients are paying the penalty because they don’t know how to prove their innocence. Some are also concerned that a legal battle in which they are accused of downloading illegal content might affect their work or home lives.

NEXT: how to respond >>

See also: File-sharing clampdowns won't stop p2p music downloads

With the government cracking down on illegal filesharing, PC Advisor explains why securing your wireless network can help you avoid a £500 fine.

DEA: How to respond

ACS:Law’s website explains how the matter should be dealt with, and offers a number of frequently asked questions.

“If in doubt, the recipient of the letter should seek advice from a solicitor or the Citizen’s Advice Bureau [CAB],” Crossley said.

The CAB has confirmed that a number of customers on the receiving end of the warning letters had contacted it for help.

“People who receive similar letters should never sign and send anything back, as this might make them liable. Instead, they should take the letter to their local CAB and get free, confidential advice on dealing with the situation,” the CAB told PC Advisor.

DEA: Industry reproach

Another legal firm, Lawdit, questions ACS:Law’s methods. Lawyer Michael Coyle, who has represented clients accused of illegally downloading content, said: “It can’t be right for legal action and significant costs to be threatened when all the rights holder has in its possession is the name of the person who pays the bill.”

Coyle also believes the Information Commissioner should step in, and argues that the release of names and addresses is disproportionate to the supposed offence and may even breach the Data Protection Act 1998.

Music industry body the BPI isn’t happy either. “We don’t favour ACS:Law’s methods of tackling illegal filesharing, which are at odds with the proportionate and graduated response advocated by BPI and proposed in the Digital Economy Bill,” said spokesman Adam Liversage.

While the organisation is in favour of notifications being issued to alleged offenders, the BPI said such warnings should not contain a request for payment, coupled with the suggestion of subsequent legal action if this is not forthcoming.

“Our view is that legal action is best reserved for the most persistent or serious offenders, rather than widely used as a first response,” said Liversage.

For consumers, locking up their wireless internet connection and perhaps streaming rather than downloading music may be the safest move.

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