Censorship Fail Reveals Big Music ISP Spying Plan

Previously confidential documents detailing Universal Music's meetings with the former UK government over the Digital Economy Act are revealing a whole lot more than the pair intended. Blacked-out sections now uncovered show that Universal believed that ISPs could spy on their users and hand over information to rightsholders in order for them to sue.

As reported in our earlier article, documents requested from Lord Mandelson’s office under the Freedom of Information Act have already proven interesting reading.

The documents detail meetings held in 2009 with Lord Mandelson, then Secretary of State (SoS) for Business, on the UK’s then-upcoming Digital Economy Act.

One report is titled ‘Note of Secretary of State’s meeting with Lucian Grainge (CEO, Universal Music Group International). In common with many documents released under FOI requests, this one (marked ‘RESTRICTED’) has blacked-out sections, hiding information deemed too sensitive for the public eye.


The censored paragraph

black out censor fail

However, due to the government’s failure to black-out the text in all versions of the document (and leaving the PDF version open to exploitation) we can now reveal the contents of a censored paragraph.

In it, Universal CEO Lucian Grainge begins by talking about a deal his company struck with Virgin Media.

“Universal have entered into an arrangement with the Internet Service Provider (ISP) Virgin to target legitimate broadband users with a £10 ‘all you can eat’ offer,” Grainge explained.

Indeed, in mid-2009 that particular deal was hailed as “ground-breaking” but the other major labels didn’t sign on to provide the necessary momentum. Quietly, even Universal had reservations.

“There is a commercial risk with this strategy, which could be like putting a Coca Cola pipe in your house which would then supply the whole street,” Grainge told the meeting.

But the deal with Virgin was two-way. To combat piracy concerns like these the ISP agreed to do something for Universal.

“In return for a fixed fee revenue share Virgin have agreed to anti-piracy measures, including pop-up warnings on screens,” Grainge confirmed.

Eventually the Universal/Virgin deal fizzled out and now more than two years later the Spotify service is on the horizon instead.

However, it is Grainge’s final comments during the meeting on anti-piracy enforcement that will raise eyebrows, particularly since the government has tried and failed to censor this statement from the Freedom of Information request.

“As ISPs can monitor the amount of power used by specific users and the sites connected to, it is possible for ISPs to pass on any details to owners of particular rights, who could then take legal action,” Grainge concludes.

The mere suggestion from the head of a major label that ISPs could spy on their customers is outrageous enough, but mentioned in the same breath as a deal with Virgin Media will cause even greater concern.

In late 2009 it was revealed that Virgin Media had partnered with technology company Detica to install a Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) system. Called CView, the product was to be installed to monitor the instances of illicit file-sharing on Virgin’s network.

“Understanding how consumer behaviour is changing will be an important requirement of Virgin Media’s upcoming music offering [with Universal Music] and, should they become law, the Government’s legislative proposals will also require measurement of the level of copyright infringement on ISPs’ networks,” Virgin Media’s executive director Jon James explained at the time.

The assurances were, however, that all of the data collected by CView on Virgin’s network (and on other ISPs – Detica were in talks with them too) would be anonymized, but groups such as Privacy International still had concerns.

The notion of ISPs becoming “copyright cops” is an increasingly worrying topic. With the voluntary warning system just agreed in the US, ISPs are slowly revealing that they are prepared to work with the music and movie industries. Where they will draw that final cooperative line remains to be seen but if we take Lucian Grainge’s comments at face value, we can see where the labels might be aiming.

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