Should Web Browsers Block Copyright Infringing URLs?

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Two weeks ago the RIAA wrote a letter to BitTorrent Inc, asking the company to block "infringing" downloads in its popular client uTorrent. While it's technically feasible the request treads on a slippery slope. Will the RIAA ask web browsers to block copyright infringing URLs next?

stop-blockedWith more than 150 million active users per month uTorrent is without a doubt the most popular file-sharing application.

Many people use the software to download pirated material, which worries copyright holder groups such as the RIAA.

Earlier this month the music group sent a letter to uTorrent’s parent company BitTorrent Inc. urging it to do something about this unauthorized use. Ideally, the RIAA would like infringing hashes to be banned so that users can no longer share these files.

“We are willing to establish a process to share the hashes with BitTorrent Inc. on a regular basis so that BitTorrent Inc. can use the information to deter further infringement of those files via its goods and services,” the RIAA wrote in a letter to the company.

Technically speaking it’s quite easy to block hashes. Several BitTorrent trackers already do this to keep copyright holders appeased, but thus far this has been a bridge too far for the company behind uTorrent.

BitTorrent Inc. hasn’t responded to our repeated requests for comment, but in a brief statement provided to Venturebeat the company notes that the protocol is open source, legal and that they themselves don’t host any infringing content. This is true, but the response also misses the main point.

The RIAA’s request isn’t about the protocol or the technology. It’s about adding a piracy prevention mechanism to a neutral piece of software. Should BitTorrent be obliged to do that?

Legally speaking BitTorrent Inc isn’t required to take any action. Browser developers don’t have to block infringing URLs either, even though hundreds of millions of people use their software to download or stream pirated content.

However, the RIAA’s letter shows that the music group is trying to shift this obvious boundary, and they are not only focusing on BitTorrent.

TF has learned that the RIAA and MPAA are pushing for automated pirate site blocking/warning technology. Outright takedown requests to browser vendors are not going to happen anytime soon, but subtle changes may appear.

The RIAA previously noted that it would like Google to expand Chrome’s malware warning system to cover pirate sites. This would mean that users see a red warning screen when they attempt to visit known piracy sites.

For its part the MPAA is actively lobbying for “site scoring” tools behind closed doors. A leaked copy of the group’s anti-piracy strategies lists site scoring services, which identify pirate sites, as a high priority.

The Hollywood group writes that these pirate site lists can then be used as a blocking tool by advertisers, payment processors, domain name registrars, hosting providers and search engines. Web browsers are not mentioned specifically, but it’s not hard to imagine these also appearing on the MPAA’s wish list.

In any case, the efforts outlined above show that copyright holders would like to extend anti-piracy measures beyond traditional service providers to software vendors. Today it’s BitTorrent clients but browser vendors may be next.

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