Rights groups wary as ISPs roll out Copyright Alert System

Content creators say online alert system aims to educate users; analysts not so sure

Privacy advocates and consumer rights groups are keeping a wary eye on a new copyright enforcement mechanism set to be rolled out by major Internet Service Providers.

The so-called Copyright Alert System (CAS) aims to warn Internet users who illegally download and share music, videos and other copyrighted content over peer-to-peer file sharing networks.

Internet users identified as engaging in illegal file sharing will receive a graduated set of warnings from their ISP.

Initial alerts will be "educational" in nature, informing users about the consequences of copyright infringement, according to a description of the program by the Center for Copyright Infringement (CCI), the entity in charge of the system.

Internet users who continue to illegally share content sharing will next receive a so-called "acknowledgment" alert requiring them to click a link on their browser to acknowledge they have seen the notices.

"For accounts where alleged infringing activity continues, enhanced alerts that contain 'mitigation measures' will follow. These mitigation measures will vary by ISP and range from requiring the subscriber to review educational materials, to a temporary slow-down of Internet access speed," the CCI noted in its announcement last week.

The CCI did not specify what would happen to users who continued illegal file-sharing activities even after receiving warnings. But it insisted that ISPs would not terminate a consumer's Internet service under the Copyright Alert System.

"Contrary to many erroneous reports, this is not a "six-strikes-and-you're-out" system that would result in termination. There's no "strikeout" in this program," it said.

The CCI last week noted that ISPs will begin to implement the program over the next two months.

The CCI is a collaborative anti-piracy effort involving U.S. content creators and five major ISPs. Members of the initiative include the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable. The group also includes several associations that represent independent film and music producers.

Under the Copyright Alert System, content owners will be responsible for monitoring file-sharing networks and for identifying any alleged illegal activity. The ISP will then send out graduated alerts to the owners of the IP addresses associated with the infringing activity.

In an email to Computerworld, a spokesman from Verizon said CCI's blog post last week accurately describes the Copyright Alert System being rolled out by Verizon. AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable (TWC) did not respond to request for comment on the program.

In comments made to Techhive, a TWC spokesman is quoted as saying the company will follow the same procedures outlined by the CCI last week.

However, the TWC spokesman said that it will temporarily cut off Internet services for users who receive a fifth warning.

The suspension will remain in place until the account holder calls Time Warner Cable "so you can listen to us preach about copyright infringement," the TWC spokesman is quoted as saying in the Techhive story.

Internet users who believe they have been wrongly accused of copyright infringement by ISPs will have a right to appeal the suspension through the American Arbitration Association, a neutral dispute resolution organization, according to the CCI.

In the case of TWC at least, Internet users will need to pay an upfront fee of $35 to file an appeal. The fee will be refunded if the appeal is upheld, according to Techhive.

David Sohn, general counsel and director of the Center for Democracy and Technology's (CDT) Project on Copyright and Technology said the Copyright Alert System could serve a useful purpose if used purely for its stated purpose of educating users.

The key though will be the manner in which it is implemented by ISPs, Sohn said.

"If it stays focused on informing and educating people we think it could make a positive contribution to reducing infringement," Sohn said. However, the system could have the opposite effect if used as a tool to impose punishment, he said.

"It can play a positive role towards education but not for meting out punishment," Sohn said.

Stakeholders need to ensure that the system is not used by ISPs to cut people off the Internet based purely on the basis of private notices from content creators, he cautioned.

CDT is one of several advocacy and rights organizations that have been called into to play an advisory role in the CCI.

The Copyright Alert System formalizes a practice that ISPs have quietly used for several years against egregious copyright infringers said Gigi Sohn, president and CEO of Public Knowledge, another advocacy group that is advising the CCI.

The system is set up to minimize false alerts and will ostensibly be used to issue alerts only to those who download or distribute entire copyrighted works, said Gigi Sohn (no relation the CDTs David Sohn).

Considerable effort has been put by the CCI into ensuring that the alerting is not done is a "very finger wagging way because that would just not work," she said.

ISPs have a vested interest in ensuring that the Copyright Alert System becomes a success, Sohn said. U.S. content creators have been relentless in their effort to curtail piracy and would have lobbied Congress heavily for some sort of legislation if ISPs had not gone along, she addd.

Corynne McSherry, intellectual property director at the Electronic Frontier Foundation, expressed serious reservations overthe alerting system.

The graduated response mechanism is triggered by a mere allegation by content creators, she said.

The system offers no easy way for users to independently investigate the allegations against them or to hold content owners responsible for false allegations, McSherry said. Subscribers also get very little time to defend the allegations against them, she added.

"Internet access has become an essential service in the digital age," McSherry said. "Just as we restrict the power of utilities to turn off services to their customers, we should not allow content owners to cause Internet access providers to degrade or suspend their services without adequate due process."

Jaikumar Vijayan covers data security and privacy issues, financial services security and e-voting for Computerworld. Follow Jaikumar on Twitter at @jaivijayan, or subscribe to Jaikumar's RSS feed . His e-mail address is jvijayan@computerworld.com.

Read more about legal in Computerworld's Legal Topic Center.

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