Mon. Oct 2nd, 2023
The Privacy Dilemma: The Relationship Between ISPs and Content Providers

Privacy has become a scarce commodity in today’s internet landscape. The tradeoff for using online services, especially social networks, is the surrender of vast amounts of personal data. Even regular websites are filled with trackers, making it difficult to avoid being tracked. The choice is clear: accept being tracked or stay offline.

While the invasion of privacy on the wider internet is a well-discussed topic, less attention is given to the role of internet service providers (ISPs) in allowing us to access the internet. ISPs are the gatekeepers of our online connections, and all the traffic generated by subscribers flows through them. The relationship between ISPs and content providers is a niche yet important aspect of this discussion.

In the early days of file-sharing, there were many proposed solutions, but one that was often dismissed is now seen as the biggest threat. ISPs controlled the access tubes of the internet, while rightsholders owned the content. Today, these two parties often find themselves under the same corporate roof, suggesting a close working relationship and shared interests.

In recent years, it has come to light that some UK-based anti-piracy companies have collaborated with ISPs to monitor subscribers’ consumption of content from pirate servers. This collaboration was referenced in a successful ISP blocking injunction by Sky in October 2020. Sky had gathered data on high-traffic IP addresses accessed via its network to assist an anti-piracy company working on behalf of the Premier League.

It’s important to note that this monitoring was not performed by spying on customers’ connections at their homes. Instead, it involved monitoring traffic flowing from pirate servers’ IP addresses. While some may argue that any monitoring is unacceptable, there is a question of whether UK ISPs have explicit permission to do so.

According to the customer agreements and privacy policies of leading UK ISPs like Sky and Virgin Media, subscribers understand that their information may be shared with third parties if piracy is suspected. Sky’s privacy policy mentions the protection of its own and third-party rights, including preventing unauthorized access to content and detecting piracy. Virgin Media’s privacy policy also mentions using customer data to block unauthorized content, respond to legal proceedings, and assist in anti-piracy efforts.

BT, on the other hand, does not explicitly mention anti-piracy cooperation in its privacy policy. However, the company does collect information on users suspected of piracy to protect its network.

The details of how these policies are implemented are unclear, but they serve a purpose. The fact that subscribers must grant these permissions shows that often people don’t read the fine print.

In conclusion, the relationship between ISPs and content providers is an area that deserves more attention in the privacy debate. Subscribers should be aware of how their data is being used and shared when accessing the internet through their ISPs.