March 4, 2009 | By Danny O'Brien

Irish Blackout: Why Irish ISPs Should Stand with Their Customers

Two weeks ago, the Irish music industry's trade body, the Irish Recorded Music Association (IRMA), wrote to all Irish ISPs — and, apparently accidentally, many other unrelated Internet companies — requiring that the ISPs instigate a "three strikes" policy with their customers, and universally block sites that IRMA felt were inappropriate for Irish consumers, such as the Pirate Bay. IRMA gave ISPs seven days to provide a response.

ISPs and Irish net users alike were concerned, and have every right to be.

IRMA appears to be not quite as confident in its future legal actions as it implied. Seven days have passed, with no additional moves from IRMA. Some ISPs received curt permission to take another seven days to respond; others received no further correspondence at all. All are pondering their next steps.

The letters were sent as part of IRMA's earlier settlement with the major Irish telecommunications company, Eircom. Eircom agreed to a "three strikes" approach in return for IRMA pursuing the same approach with all other Irish ISPs.

The details of Eircom's agreement remains secret. It is certainly not legally binding on other ISPs. The settlement emerged from a substantially different case, in which IRMA was demanding Audible Magic-style filtering of all Internet communications.

For Eircom it may have appeared a good deal, especially if IRMA promised to force the same agreement on all its competitors. But compared to Eircom, most other ISPs in Ireland have far greater business incentive to rebuff IRMA's advances. Eircom itself is in relatively comfortable position of a previous state monopoly with almost half the current market; its parent company, investors Babcock & Brown, have no other major telecommunication interests outside Ireland. By contrast, Eircom's major competition, BT Ireland and Chorus, are global telecommunication companies with a strong interest in preventing IRMA's demands from establishing an expensive and controlling precedent that could spread to other countries. Smaller Irish ISPs, who generally resell Eircom broadband, compete with the incumbent company on improved customer service. Angry Eircom subscribers are already looking to move away from their ISP: competitors who do not block sites and do not hand over information on their subscribers or terminate them on the say-so of an unconnected third-party no doubt stand to inherit some of those customers.

Of course, it's easy to be sanguine when you are not a struggling Internet business staring at a legal letter from the amassed forces of the music industry. But the Irish internet industry should stand united and firm. Big or small, companies have strong commercial as well as ethical reasons to fight this attack. And they should note that for all of IFPI's bluster about the advance of three strikes and filtering globally, the only consistent effect of their attempts to impose their will on Internet infrastructure has been universal consumer condemnation, with both regulatory and voluntary agreements quickly becoming bogged down in back-tracking and legal difficulties.

This week Irish Internet users are organizing a blackout, inspired by the successful New Zealand protests last month. Civil liberties and the success of Internet innovation often go hand in hand. Irish ISPs would do well to join their customers' stand against IRMA.

For more information on taking action, see the Blackout Ireland site; Irish activist Aubrey Robinson provides a useful FAQ here.

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