ISPs New “Six-Strike” Program to Combat Online Piracy: Critics Worry About Internet Freedom, Privacy

By @FrederickReese |
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    (Mint Press) – The Copyright Alert System (CAS) reached a milestone in its “implementation phase” on Monday in its intent to curb online piracy.

    After months of delays, the largest Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in America rolled out their “six-strike” program for combating piracy of copyright-protected materials. This program, universally panned by Internet freedom activists, will allow the ISPs to proceed through an escalated “graduate response” approach to piracy activity, starting with a warning email and climbing up to a possible reduction of service.

    According to the Center for Copyright Information’s 2011’s Memorandum of Understanding, “While the government maintains a critical role in enforcing copyright law, it should be readily apparent that, in an age of viral, digital online distribution, prosecution of individual acts of infringement may serve a purpose, but standing alone this may not be the only or best solution to addressing Online Infringement. Such efforts must respect the legitimate interests of Internet users and subscribers in protecting their privacy and freedom of speech, in accessing legitimate content, and in being able to challenge the accuracy of allegations of Online Infringement.”

    “Practically speaking, this means our content partners will begin sending notices of alleged P2P [peer-to-peer] copyright infringement to ISPs, and the ISPs will begin forwarding those notices in the form of Copyright Alerts to consumers,” Jill Lesser of the Center for Copyright Information stated Monday.

    Privacy advocates argue that control mechanisms, such as those being implemented in this program, threatens a person’s rights to freely access the internet. By questioning how and why a person access the internet, it can be argued that access to bandwidth-intensive services, such as YouTube — or, basically, any service the ISPs have a concern about — can be limited on the basis of copyright infringement.

    Currently, however, advocacy groups such as Demand Progress and Fight for the Future are currently maintaining a “wait-and-see” posture with CAS while encouraging home users to install Virtual Private Networks (VPNs).


    So, what is the Copyright Alert System, anyway?

    The program — in which Time Warner, AT&T, Comcast, Cablevision and other ISPs signed onto — was originally scheduled to start in July 2012, but was postponed over protests for the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the PROTECT IP Act (Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act or PIPA). The White House expressed its support of it when initially introduced, saying that it will “have a significant impact on reducing online piracy.”

    The economic impact of online piracy is hard to pin down. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) estimates that $20.5 billion is lost due to illegal downloads per year.

    However, the Cato Institute has estimated that the actual amount lost per year is $446 million, with the discrepancy being blamed on double counting and dubious accounting methods. The Government Accounting Office (GAO) has also noted that any official calculation would be difficult to accurately produce due to the clandestine nature of piracy. For example, if a person downloads a song he wouldn’t have bought otherwise, is it still considered a loss?

    CAS is designed to work without the intellectual property owner (IP) knowing the identity or customer information of the suspected illegal downloader. Representatives of the IP owner would log onto peer-to-peer (P2P) networks and see if protected materials are being downloaded. If it is, they would record the address of the downloader’s computer and would report the incident to the downloader’s ISP.

    The resulting response will depend on the ISPs stated practices. Comcast has yet to announce its punitive actions. Time Warner will require their users to agree to not pirate materials — first, by clicking on a splash screen, and — after repeated warnings, by having a discussion with a customer service representative.

    Verizon will knock down offenders’ Internet speed to 256 kilobytes per second (kbps) after the fourth alert.

    As stated in Verizon’s plans, a violation after the fifth warning will cause Verizon to “redirect your browser to a special Web page where you will be given several options. You can: Agree to an immediate temporary (two or three day) reduction in the speed of your Internet access service to 256 kbps (a little faster than typical dial-up speed); Agree to the same temporary (two or three day) speed reduction but delay it for a period of 14 days; or Ask for a review of the validity of your alerts by the American Arbitration Association.”

    To challenge the accusation, the accused downloader must pay $35, which is repayable if the case is settled in favor of the accused. The fact that subscribers must pay to challenge a decision, the assumption that the accused is guilty until proven innocent, the reality that the Digital Media Copyright Act requires the ISPs to have a termination policy in place for repeat copyright offenders and the lack of protection for groupware users (which Comcast previously confused with P2P users) show serious flaws with this policy shift.

    Time Warner Cable’s subscriber agreement states that the company retains the right to terminate or suspend the service of account holders “even for a single act of copyright infringement,” despite assurances to the contrary from the Center of Copyright Information.

    The greatest problem with CAS, however, is that it may be truly unnecessary.


    The state of online piracy today

    In 2011, when CAS was drafted, online piracy was a true problem. Every year, billions of dollars in computer software, music, movies and television shows were pilfered annually.

    Things have changed in two years. Physical media is a rapidly-fading mode to transport media — CDs have given way to MP3s, DVDs are becoming less and less popular and most new game systems and computers stream games over the Internet. In the era in which nearly any movie, song or television show can be watch or heard on NetFlix, YouTube, Amazon Instant Video and Spotify, there is less a need to illegally download.

    More to the point, professional media pirates can easily avoid detection with the use of VPNs or a proxy service, by using Usenet, by downloading from free file-hosting services, by streaming movies and not downloading them or by switching from a consumer-class internet connection to a business-class account — such accounts are immune from ”copyrights alerts.”

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