The Police Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) has arrested a man on suspicion of providing access to websites which have been subject to a legal blocking order. The man is accused of operating an ‘umbrella’ website that allows users to access the infringing websites freely. This is part of the City of London Police Unit’s drive to shut down websites providing access to infringing content.

The clamp down operation (“Operation Creative”), supported by the Federation Against Copyright Theft, uncovered evidence that the man’s server was providing access to 36 other websites that had been blocked due to offering illegal or infringing content.

The existence of content on the internet that amounts to copyright infringement has become a growing concern particularly in relation to films and music. For many years the entertainment industries in the UK have tried to apply to the High Court to help prevent copyright infringement on the internet by requiring ISPs to block offending websites. What makes these actions difficult is that these sites often exist in foreign jurisdictions where it is difficult or impossible to take other legal action to prevent their continuing operation.

Since site blocking orders commenced, internet users have sought ways to continue to access sites by getting round the blocks put in place by the ISPs. One of the ways to do this is to use proxy servers (servers that act as an intermediary for requests from users seeking resources from other servers). The user connects to the proxy server, requesting some service such as a connection or a particular web page from a different server and the proxy server evaluates the request. In recent years these servers have been used to facilitate access to infringing content and provide anonymity. Numerous proxy servers sprang up last year as UK ISPs were served Court Orders to block illegal file sharing sites.

The proxy server used in this instance was Immunicity, run by the Torrenticity Group which was designed to unblock both torrent sites and proxies. It required users to make simple changes to their browser settings – adding a Proxy Auto Configuration file (PAC) – which could then instruct your browser to send your web traffic through different proxies depending on the URL you are looking for. This meant that users could access sites that had been blocked by UK ISPs following High Court orders such as PirateBay, KickAssTorrents, HEET, ExtraTorrent, YiFY and EZTV. This means that Immunicity and similar services fall foul of anti-circumvention provisions within UK copyright law.

Operation Creative is a ground breaking initiative designed to disrupt and prevent websites from providing unauthorised access to copyrighted content, it is led by the PIPCU. Head of the PIPCU Andy Fyfe has stated:

“We will come down hard on people believed to be committing or deliberately facilitating such offences.”

This arrest demonstrates how the PIPCU, working in partnership with the creative and advertising industry is targeting how copyrighted material is illegally being made available to internet users. Other initiatives under Operation Creative include placing pop up adverts on infringing websites to warn users the sites are under investigation and asking hosting providers to take the sites down. Visitors to Immunicity now see a banner warning them that they have tried to access a website that is under criminal investigation by the PIPCU. The banner directs visitors to sites where they can find a safe and reliable guide to online content.

However, not everyone is happy with this new initiative. Jim Killock, executive director of the Open Rights Group, a digital civil rights group, noted that the arrested man is young and appears not to have been running the proxy service for profit. Supporters of the Open Rights Group argue that whether the service is run for profit is an important consideration when determining whether the man’s actions were criminal. Killock has questioned whether the police had to be involved at this point and argues that the man was carrying out a personal protest rather than attempting to encourage infringements of copyright. Open Rights Group supporters also emphasise that proxy services are used to allow people in repressive regimes to access legitimate sites that are censored in their home countries.

So what?

Operation Creative is tackling internet-enabled copyright infringement and has seen over 40 national and international websites suspended by domain name registrars. The PIPCU continues to collaborate with the advertising and creative industries and although internet users will no doubt continue to attempt to access infringing content it is hoped that the operation can reduce the huge number of websites enabling this access.