Internet Providers to Begin Systematically Identifying Customers Who Infringe on Copyrights

Following years of negotiations between Hollywood, the music industry, and ISP’s, illegally downloading copyrighted material is no longer going to be as anonymous or risk free.

The new agreement reached between content providers like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and organizations for independent record and film companies and filmmakers, and ISP’s AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable, takes aim at stemming the estimated $16 billion in lost revenue due to digital piracy each year.

Under the agreement, ISP’s will institute a coordinated effort to identify users that appear to be infringing on digital copyrights. Offending users (or their parents the account owners) will receive a series of 6 progressively sterner warnings, beginning with simple e-mail notifications and escalating to “mitigation measures,” including slowed connection speeds and blocked browsing.  As the warning messages intensify, the account owners will be required to acknowledge that they understand the notice and they will have the opportunity to dispute the warnings.

While saying the new initiative is primarily educational and would not require ISP’s to shut off internet access to offenders, the companies also noted that carriers have the right to block any user that violates a company’s terms of use – and they all have terms saying pirating is not allowed.

The way this will work is that content owners (media providers) will track illegal file-sharing of their content and provide evidence to the Internet providers. Internet provider will then be accountable for sending out alerts to offending users and implementing penalty procedures. ISP’s will not disclose to the media the identities of offending customers.

The goal of this agreement is to drive awareness of the illegality of pirating content, and help reduce a behavior that is entrenched in the online behavior of millions of users, especially younger users. 

“This is a sensible approach to the problem of online content theft and, importantly, one that respects the privacy and rights of our subscribers… [and] provides a rational and thoughtful solution — a solution that respects the rights of copyright holders as well as I.S.P.’s and their customers — to a problem that has plagued the Internet” said Randal S. Milch, executive vice president and general counsel for Verizon, in a statement to the New York Times.

Of course not everyone is thrilled with the new agreement.

Many tech experts are skeptical that these measures will be successful in stopping piracy since efforts will primarily focus on monitoring peer-to-peer file-sharing tools, largely ignoring other means of digital distribution that would be much harder to trace.

Other groups, like Internet rights group Public Knowledge and the Center for Democracy and Technology raise concern that consumers could be punished “based on allegations that have not been tested in court.”

While the objections have merit they miss a couple of key points:

  1. The goal of the initiative isn’t to stop all illegal distribution and downloading, the goal is to deter the crime by making consumers acutely aware of the illegality of such actions and understand that doing so can have significant consequences.  Arguing that if it won’t stop all pirating the initiative is futile is akin to saying if a life sentence doesn’t stop all murders it’s a useless gesture.
  2. Just like using a phone, or any other service, internet use is afforded consumers under a specified set of conditions. Any service online or offline has the right to kick anyone off their services if they violate the company’s terms and conditions.  A restaurant does not need to wait for a court decision to kick out a disruptive customer. A store does not need to wait for a court order to stop and expel a shoplifter. At the same time, it is not in the interest of companies to randomly kick paying customers out/off. This balance has worked well in every other arena so it is reasonable to assume it will work as well with ISP’s – particularly as this initiative has specifically carved out a way for consumers to contest the warnings.

If we are going to stick to the assertion that stealing music/video/film online is equivalent to stealing the same item from a store, then this initiative is past due and should be embraced by law abiding citizens.



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