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7/8/2011
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ISPs Agree To Copyright Alerts: What It Means

Agreement between the MPAA, RIAA, and service providers will alert customers when their accounts are used to illegally download copyrighted materials.

On Thursday, movie, music, and television producers announced a new agreement with service providers to create a "copyright alert" system that would warn people when their Internet access accounts are being used to illegally download content.

As part of the agreement, service providers would send a subscriber up to six alerts that their account was being used to illegally download copyrighted material. After that, service providers have a menu of potential "mitigation measures," which include temporarily suspending Internet access, but not canceling accounts. But copyright holders will be given no access to service providers' subscriber data.

"Today's agreement has the potential to be an important educational vehicle that will help reduce peer-to-peer online copyright infringement. Whether it will meet that promise or instead will undermine the rights of Internet users will depend on how it is implemented," said David Sohn, senior policy counsel and director of the project on intellectual property and technology at the Center for Democracy and Technology (CDT), in a blog post. He said the agreement has been over two years in the making, and grew out of a deal brokered around early 2009 by Andrew Cuomo, then New York's attorney general. As part of that deal, the RIAA dramatically decreased the number of lawsuits it filed against alleged copyright violators, in favor of notifications.

The new agreement has the backing of the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), which counts all of the major movie studios as members, including Disney, Paramount, Sony, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal, and Warner Bros.; the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), which counts major music producers as members; as well as service providers AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon.

Underpinning this new strategy is an emphasis not on punishment, but information. "If you knew that something you were doing was hurting someone else, you'd stop, right? Of course--it's not even a question. That's why we think the real key to stopping content theft is information," said Michael O'Leary, the MPAA's executive VP of government relations, in a blog post.

Accordingly, the agreement includes the formation of a new Center for Copyright Information, to educate consumers about copyright--by highlighting its impact on the economy, and jobs--as well as by pointing people to legitimate ways of accessing music and movies online. According to a survey cited by the MPAA, 13% of adults in the United States have illegally downloaded or watched television shows via the Internet. The MPAA also estimates that annual "content theft" costs $16 billion in lost revenue and $3 billion in lost federal, state, and local taxes.

The agreement gives service providers discretion about how they choose to proceed, after alerting a user that their account is being used for illegal downloading. "This kind of voluntary, notification-centric approach sidesteps many of the serious concerns that would be raised by government mandates, the adoption of new snooping or filtering technologies, or a draconian 'three strikes' approach centered on disconnecting Internet users," said CDT's Sohn.

But he argued that one of the available options--temporarily suspending Internet access--goes too far. "Given the importance of Internet access in today's world, we believe that it would be wrong for any ISP to cut off subscribers' Internet access, even temporarily, based on allegations that have not been tested in court," he said.

Furthermore, what happens when service providers attempt to alert account holders that their Internet access account appears to have been used for illegal downloads? According to the MPAA, such alerts might mirror credit card fraud alerts. But what's to say the real account holder--rather than, say, a teenager who also lives in the household--will receive and bother to understand or heed the alert?

Service providers have a contentious relationship with users of peer-to-peer software, which is one of the leading techniques for illegally downloading content. In the past, for example, service providers such as Comcast have throttled bandwidth hogs or even blocked users of BitTorrent. That throttling resulted in the Federal Communications Commission punishing Comcast, but that ruling was later overturned by a U.S. Appeals Court, which said the FCC had overstepped its authority.

But the issue lives on, with Congress continuing to debate whether service providers should abide by "net neutrality" rules that disallow them from shaping or blocking traffic. If this new copyright alert system works as intended, however, it could go a long way toward addressing service providers' content-access concerns, without the need for new regulations, and while maintaining consumers' privacy.

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