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Maltese ISPs do not block internet services

The largest Maltese ISPs do not block ports, which could be used to access illegal content.

The largest Maltese ISPs do not block ports, which could be used to access illegal content.

The main Maltese internet service providers do not implement what is known as “port blocking”, i.e. the blocking of certain services available through internet.

When contacted by i-Tech, Go, Melita and Vodafone Malta all claimed that they do not implement or have ever implemented such a mechanism unless in very specific circumstances, such as an order from a legal authorities or to fight spam e-mail.

Port blocking can be used to block users from accessing illegal services or illegal content in internet, such as peer-to-peer (P2P) services where users trade illegal copies of movies, songs and software.

To implement port blocking, an ISP blocks certain types of IP (internet) traffic such as chatting, e-mail, and P2P traffic. In such a case, the subscribers to the service of that ISP would not be able to send or receive the traffic type that was blocked by the ISP but would still be able to send and receive all other permitted traffic. It is called port blocking because internet traffic uses different channels or ports over the same connection. For example port 80 is used for web pages while ports 25 and 110 are used for e-mail.

This is different from other filtering solutions used on internet such as website filtering, which does not block a particular port but particular websites. This is commonly used as a means of parental control, to safeguard productivity at work or deny access to websites that use a lot of bandwidth such as video hosting websites.

Along the years, port blocking has become a very ineffective solution for control/security. Nowadays, applications can change the port on which they are listening so really and truly you need a firewall/device that is application aware and hence the traffic is dynamically controlled.

i-Tech is aware that several Maltese internet users do make use of P2P software to download content from internet which is questionable in terms of copyright. However, in recent years alternative services not based on P2P have been launched abroad. These download services are accessed through normal websites which use port 80. Blocking port 80 would result in the shutdown of all websites and not just those providing questionable downloads.

Last week an American jury ordered a Minnesota woman to pay US$1.5 million for illegally downloading 24 songs over P2P in a high-profile digital piracy case.

The issue of illegal download and access to illegal services has come to the fore also in Malta in recent months for two reasons.

Earlier this year Microsoft Malta publicly complained that software piracy in the local small business sector is rampant and this is hurting the software maker financially.

Then a few weeks ago this newspaper reported how Maltese satellite viewers are watching foreign TV channels through a set-top box named “Dreambox” and internet access. Though these channels are perfectly accessible in Malta, their viewing could be illegal since the scrambled signals are decoded through internet and not by the official set-top box and card of the satellite TV service provider. These providers are bound by strict licensing terms over the territories where their content can be viewed.

This is not a local issue. A few days ago the European Association for the Protection of Encrypted Works and Services (AEOPOC) noted with satisfaction the court sentence given by a Belgian court against two so-called “pirates” who sold illegal viewing cards in Germany between 2006 and 2008. One was given an 18-month jail term and ordered to pay almost €2 million in damages to Sky Germany. The other got eight months. A further two were given suspended jail terms and another was acquitted. The judgment is appealable.

The Dreambox eliminates the need of such viewing cards as the so-called “keys” for unscrambling the picture is obtained in real time via internet from someone who “shares” an original card through internet.

AEPOC, which represents European digital content, telecommunications and conditional access providers, welcomed this ruling as “the first of this dimension” but lamented that it does not see “a satisfying functioning of the Conditional Access Directive and its implementation into national law. Accordingly, AEPOC works inside the European Union for the harmonisation of laws and the introduction of minimum thresholds for sanctions to underline that pay-TV piracy is a severe crime.”

In an interview with i-Tech a few weeks ago, Robert Madelin, director general at the Directorate General for the Information Society of the European Commission, explained the tension between law and technology in the EU right now. “What you’re seeing is the difference between the ability of technology to get anything from almost anywhere and a pre-digital territorial legal reality. The particular business configuration varies from country to country but the fundamental challenge is, as my Commissioner Neelie Kroes often says, that there is a single market for content but the problem is that it is illegal. When there is rapid technological change, when there are disruptive technologies, disruptive in a good sense, the law has difficulty to catch up. And society has to manage that tension. You can’t say ‘the law at all costs’ and you can’t say ‘technology at all costs’. At the same time the content aspects of intellectual property are a crucial enabler for the single market.”

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