Speculation is rife that the decision, which goes against the government’s Digital Britain report, stems from a secret deal to protect film and music industries.

People who persist in swapping copyrighted films and music will have their internet connections cut off under tough new laws to be proposed by the British government on Tuesday.

The measures also include taking the power to target illegal downloaders away from regulator Ofcom and giving it to ministers to speed up the process.

The decision to cut off peer-to-peer file-sharers is unexpected since it was ruled out by the government’s own Digital Britain report in June as going too far.

In the report, the then communications Minister, Lord Carter, said illegal file-sharers should receive letters warning them their activities could leave them open to prosecution. If that failed to reduce piracy by at least 70 per cent, Ofcom would have the power to call on internet companies such as BT to introduce so-called “technical measures” to combat piracy. The most draconian of these measures was to slow down a persistent file-sharer’s broadband connection, but it would not appear until 2012.

But the government will take the unusual step of proposing much stricter rules midway through the Digital Britain consultation process. Illegal file-sharers will still get warning letters but if they continue to swap copyrighted material they could have their internet connection temporarily severed, though it may be possible to retain basic access to online public services.

A similar law in France under which file-sharers could be cut off for up to a year was recently kicked out by the country’s highest court as unconstitutional. In the U.K., privacy groups are likely to challenge any similar legislation as contrary to human rights law.

The power to introduce technical measures, meanwhile, will rest with the Secretary of State, not Ofcom and their introduction will not rely upon an arbitrary 70 per cent reduction in piracy but be up to the Minister’s discretion as he tries to secure the future of the U.K.’s creative industries. “The previous proposals, whilst robust, would take an unacceptable amount of time to complete in a situation that calls for urgent action,” according to a draft of the government’s new plan.

The surprise move will intensify speculation that Lord Mandelson reached a secret deal to protect the film and music industries with Hollywood mogul David Geffen earlier this month.

The Business Secretary met Mr. Geffen, founder of Asylum Records and the man who set up DreamWorks with Steven Spielberg, at a private dinner with members of the Rothschild banking dynasty at the family’s holiday villa on Corfu.

Following that meeting with Mr. Geffen, a long-term and outspoken opponent of online piracy, Mr. Mandelson instructed officials at his Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS), charged with tackling online piracy by June’s report, to clampdown even harder on the pirates.

Last night, a BIS spokesperson said there was no discussion of online piracy when Mr. Mandelson met Geffen and there is no connection between that meeting and the government’s new proposals on illegal file sharing.

The music and film industries had campaigned hard to have measures introduced earlier than 2012 and the fact that persistent pirates can be cut off is likely to be welcomed. The U.K.’s internet service providers, however, will be less pleased by the plans. Several have made it quite plain they have no desire to police the web on behalf of another industry.

They will be particularly annoyed that the government reckons the cost of technical measures should be borne by the ISPs and it wants that enshrined in the autumn’s Digital Economy bill. The content industry, meanwhile, will continue to pick up the tab for identifying illegal file-sharers and preparing enough information for them to be targeted by the ISPs, while the costs of the letter-writing campaign will be split equally. — © Guardian Newspapers Limited, 2009

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