Digital Legal Top Stories

SOCA removes sinister warning message from former R&B download site

By | Published on Thursday 16 February 2012

As expected, there was much criticism in the file-sharing community and beyond yesterday about the wording of an official notice posted by the UK’s Serious Organised Crime Agency at the former domain of music blog, which had been closed down by the authorities amid allegations of copyright infringement and conspiracy to defraud the music industry.

As previously reported, not only did the message tell former readers that the site had been shut down as part of a criminal investigation, it offered the stern warning that “if you have downloaded music using this website you may have committed a criminal offence which carries a maximum penalty of up to ten years imprisonment and an unlimited fine under UK law”. The warning was accompanied by a widget that showed the user’s IP address, and an additional message that amounted to saying “we know where you live”.

As noted yesterday, that warning is not really backed up by UK law, because while you could be sued by rights owners for downloading unlicensed content, a criminal prosecution is only likely if you operate a file-sharing service, or upload a significant amount of content to a file-sharing network, and even then a lengthy prison sentence would only be possible if it could be shown you were profiting from your infringement, ie you were running a commercial piracy operation.

In fact, so disconnected from the real law was SOCA’s statement, that some online commentators started to wonder if the message was a hoax, perhaps a joker had somehow managed to take over’s domain after the UK police moved to shut the site down, and had posted an over the top warning to embarrass the authorities. (The slightly amateurish look of the police notice was also noted, though SOCA’s official website does look a bit like it was designed on a night school course, so that probably wasn’t relevant.)

Anyway, it turned out the statement was, indeed, the real deal. As criticism of the way the warning was worded started to spread yesterday, the crime agency took the message down and replaced it with a more simple “SOCA has taken control of this domain name”, though the government body insists that the more controversial statement was always intended to be temporary, presumably to shock and scare the 70,000 users apparently visiting the RnB downloads blog each day.

Commenting on the wider impact of its sudden swoop on and the stern if misleading warning it posted on that domain for 36 hours, SOCA said in a statement yesterday: “Responses to the takedown have included action by three more [unlicensed] music sites. One has taken itself offline voluntarily, one claims to be considering taking itself offline, and another has posted a claim on its home page to now only be dealing in legal music files following the activity”.

The man arrested in relation to has been bailed, and faces charges of conspiracy to defraud. It’s thought the site made money through ad sales, and the profits made on the back of the posting of unlicensed music files will be key to securing a conviction for fraud. It remains to be seen how the criminal prosecution spans out, though in the meantime SOCA hasn’t really aided the anti-piracy cause by opening itself – and the record industry, which many believe (rightly or wrongly) was involved in the SOCA investigation and warning notice – to accusations of deliberately misrepresenting to law to scare web users into submission.