UK Judge: ISP Must Block File-Sharing Site In 14 Days, Foot Bill

In a major win for Hollywood, a High Court judge told the country’s biggest internet service provider, BT (NYSE: BT), that it has two weeks to block customers from accessing Newzbin2, a website where members share unauthorized copies of music and movies. And, in a move to prevent a whak-a-mole situation from arising, the judge also instructed the ISP to block any similar website at which Newzbin 2 might reappear. Here is a summary of the decision and an analysis of what it might mean in the long run and in the United States.

The decision by Mr. Justice Arnold was handed down in London this morning and provides long-awaited details about an important July ruling in which the English court effectively said that ISP’s were to play a major new role in enforcing copyright. These details included the 14 day schedule and instructions that the ISP would have to pay for costs in enforcing the action. The most significant part of today’s ruling appears to be a portion that instructs the ISP to take down any other website that acts as a gateway to the Newzbin 2 content. This is important for content owners because file-sharing sites will typically migrate to another website, often in another country, if a court orders their primary site to be taken down.

“I do not consider that the studios should be obliged to return to court for an order in respect of every single IP address or URL that the operators of Newzbin2 may use,” said Justice Arnold in explaining his ruling. The plaintiffs in the case were six major studios, including Fox (NSDQ: NWS), Disney (NYSE: DIS) and Warner Bros.

The ruling coincides with a strategic shift in recent years in which content owners have largely stopped targeting individual file-sharers and instead gone after the internet infrastructure that supports them. This means that website names and internet service provides are increasingly at the center of Hollywood’s longtime anti-piracy campaign.

The English decision is ground-breaking because it deputizes an ISP to become a copyright enforcer. Until now, the law has treated the providers (such as BT or Virgin in England or Comcast (NSDQ: CMCSA) and Verizon in America) as neutrals in the piracy debate on the grounds that they do not have a hand in creating content but, instead, simply move it around. Justice Arnold’s decision to force BT to block Newzbin 2 was founded in part on the fact that the ISP has the technical means to do so — the company already employs a screening technology that prevents customers from gaining access to child pornography sites.

There is unlikely to be a decision like Newzbin 2 in the United States anytime soon, however, because ISP’s are protected from liability by the strong safe harbors of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act. In the US, content owners have instead been turning to law enforcement tactics such as asking federal agencies to seize the names of websites. In practice, this means that visitors to a file-sharing or counterfeiting site are greeted with a new home page that features a giant Homeland Security badge. The content industry has been pushing for new legislation to create even greater law enforcement powers against websites.

For content owners, the UK tactic (forcing ISP’s to block customer access to websites) has an advantages over the American one (seizing the website name) because the website in question will typically appear under a new name a short time later.

Critics of the content industry argue that the recent anti-piracy efforts are heavy handed and impinge on free speech rights.