The government has today unexpectedly revived plans for laws to disconnect persistent illegal filesharers, in a move to delight the entertainment industry and anger ISPs.
The unscheduled changes to the Digital Britain consultation also envisage a more powerful, direct role for Lord Mandelson. Despite denials last week, the news will reignite speculation that the First Secretary of State's stance against illegal peer to peer was hardened by a summer holiday meeting with Hollywood mogul David Geffen.
The internet industry believed it had fought off pressure for the government to suspend internet access. Indeed, many in the recording industry had dropped support for a "three strikes" policy before the Digital Britain consultation began in June.
Today, however, Mandelson's Department for Business said responses to the consultation had persuaded it to reconsider introducing the threat of disconnection from the internet.
"Since the issue of the consultation some stakeholders have argued strongly that none of those technical measures [short of suspension] is powerful enough to have a significant deterrent effect on infringing behaviour," it said.
The statement included some hope for lobbies who have argued such a measure would be disproportionate and possibly illegal.
"This does not necessarily mean that suspension would be used," the government said.
"This step would obviously be a very serious sanction as it would affect all members of a household equally, and might disrupt access to other communications, so it should be regarded as very much a last resort.
"Accordingly a thorough examination of the proportionality and effectiveness of the measure (as with any of the other measures) would have to be undertaken before ISPs would be required to implement it, even if the decision to move to technical measures is taken.
"As ever we would need to ensure any such measure fully complied with both UK and EU legislation."
ISPA, the internet industry trade association responded: "ISPA is disappointed by the proposal to force ISPs to suspend users' accounts. ISPs and consumer groups consider disconnection of users to be a disproportionate response, a view that was recently supported by the European Parliament."
The government said it would also significantly speed up the introduction of sanctions because the original schedule - which may not have seen a regime come into force until 2012 - "might be too long to wait given the pressure put on the creative industries by piracy".
As announced in June, the enforcement regime will be run by Ofcom. But under the revised timescale proposals, Mandelson himself would be granted powers to decide which technical measures to bring into law by statutory instrument and when.
"Ofcom will still have a duty to monitor the overall position and report on the effectiveness of the original obligations in order to provide an evidence base for the Secretary of State's decision," his Department said, "but this advice would not be binding on the Secretary of State and he would be able to take into account other, wider factors and other sources of information before taking any decision on the introduction of technical measures."
Such a discretionary power for Mandelson to introduce technical measures would effectively override the previously envisaged "baseline and trigger" approach suggested in June, which would have measured the impact of less severe sanctions before sharpening the legal weaponry.
Those lesser sanctions against illegal filesharers will include blocking access to download sites and reducing broadband speeds.
ISPA said it would be concerned "if, as is proposed, the Secretary of State were given the power to determine when a system that included imposing technical sanctions on users should be introduced. This would politicise the process and would be a negative step."
Internet industry fears regarding the cost of protecting copyright online today also appeared to be realised, as the government said it wanted the burden to be split 50-50 between ISPs and the entertainment industry.
"However, we recognise this does raise a number of issues and therefore would welcome views from stakeholders as to how costs should be apportioned," it said.
UK Music, which represents British labels, publishers and managers welcomed the news. "Throughout this debate, UK Music has voiced concerns that the original time frame of proposed legislation, and particularly the trigger mechanisms that would grant Ofcom reserve powers to implement technical measures, would have failed to meet these ambitions," it said.
"More than that, these trigger mechanisms would have required our members to take legal action against individuals - a move the UK music industry has consistently resisted."
The government extended the deadline to respond to its plans until 29 September. We've reproduced today's statement in full on the next page. ®