The City of London Police's Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) has been the subject of controversy following take-down notices sent to overseas domain registrars. We believe they need to strengthen their commitments to due process, independence and transparency.
The City of London Police's Intellectual Property Crime Unit (PIPCU) first became operational in 2013. According to PIPCU's website, the unit is aimed at tackling serious and organised IP crime committed using an online platform. The unit is publicly funded by the Intellectual Property Office.
A few months into PIPCU's operation, there was an international controversy regarding easyDNS. PIPCU had sent notices to the Canadian-based domain registrar, requesting them to take down an alleged copyright infringing website, but without court orders. easyDNS refused to comply and had even initiated a Transfer Dispute Resolution Process against another registrar who complied with PIPCU's request and refused to allow three of its domains to transfer away to easyDNS. The National Arbitration Forum decided in favour of easyDNS, recognising that allowing a registrar to withhold transfer based simply on a law enforcement agency's suspicion and without judicial intervention gives way to potential for abuse.
PIPCU also runs Operation Creative: a partnership with UK's advertising industry and rights holders, formed to prevent websites from providing unauthorised access to copyrighted material. Specifically, Operation Creative seeks to disrupt their ad revenue streams.
Because of public concerns, ORG started corresponding with PIPCU in December 2013, asking for clarification on several matters:
PIPCU has been making take-down requests without a court order. This sidesteps the legal safeguard of due process which requires the state to respect all individual rights. The authority to compel the take-down of websites is a significant power because it censors the internet. It decides what kind of information people may provide or receive. A court order is necessary to ensure that these decisions have not been made arbitrarily and to check that the party carrying out these requests have the proper legal basis to do so.
PIPCU claims that its operations are fully independent. However, this may be threatened in relation to Operation Creative. As part of this operation, private right holders are able to influence PIPCU's activities by identifying and reporting the alleged copyright infringing sites to PIPCU. PIPCU then takes action, sending take-down requests to domain registrars. These registrars are then requested to redirect the IP address of these websites to a notice displaying links to paid commercial alternatives. This situation is concerning because Operation Creative's members are able to enjoy greater market power compared with businesses that are not involved in PIPCU's partnership initiative. It is puzzling why certain businesses should receive free advertising.
Although the officers from PIPCU will evaluate the strength of the evidence reported against the websites, it is unclear what guidelines advise PIPCU's decisions. PIPCU has told ORG that sites must have satisfied the criminal standard of proof in order for action to be taken, but this is a technical legal concept which is unclear to the public. Instead, it is necessary to publish clear criteria which are easily accessible by the public, especially since the same infringing activities are capable of being treated either as criminal or civil.
Also, PIPCU currently does not publish its Infringing Website List, but shares it amongst Operation Creative members only. We think that the public should not be kept in the dark about decisions that detrimentally affect the type of information they are able to share and receive.
We have written to Commander Head of PIPCU, stressing these concerns. Our series of correspondence can be read here:
- Original letter to PIPCU (5 Dec 2013)
- Second letter to PIPCU with details (15 September 2014)
- PIPCU's reply with details (24 March 2015)
- Third letter to PIPCU (27 July 2015)