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Internet providers launch controversial Copyright Alert System, promise 'education' over lawsuits

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Five major internet service providers have signed onto a private sector effort to punish users for downloading copyrighted materials. Advocates say the new Copyright Alert System gives the entertainment industry a new tool to combat piracy, while opponents say it's a hassle for users that won't work to stop illegal downloading. The effort has been underway since 2011 but after suffering delays and missing its scheduled launch in November, it is finally being introduced today.

The Copyright Alert System, also known as the "six strike" system, is a cooperation between ISPs and copyright owners such as movie studios and record companies. The conceit is that the system is just "informing" users that they are illegally trafficking content. "When people share digital files, they can violate copyright law often without being aware that they're doing so," says the narrator of a video produced by the Center for Copyright Information, the group administering the new program.

The participating ISPs are juggernauts Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Cablevision, and Time Warner, meaning most Americans will be affected by the new program.

The conceit is that the system is just "informing" users that they are illegally trafficking content

Most users of peer-to-peer networks — the focus of the new program — probably know when they're downloading illegal content. The difference is that these users will now get a "copyright alert" that will function as intimidation, punishment, or a gentle reminder to do the right thing, depending on how you look at it. The CCI did not respond to a request for comment.

There are rumors of "deep packet inspection," probably set off by a tweet from file-sharing overlord Kim Dotcom, but in fact the ISPs aren't watching their customers' traffic. The reality isn't quite as Big Brotherish nor as high-tech. The system starts with copyright owners monitoring peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, looking for their own content. In the porn industry, which is typically at the cutting edge when it comes to this stuff, monitoring is done by third parties that use a combination of manual and algorithmic searches to find copyrighted content on file-sharing sites and piracy forums.

Once they spot an illicit copy of Skyfall or "Thriller," a content owner can identify the internet address and ISP of the person hosting the file and report the address to the ISP. The ISP then looks up which customer it is and issues a copyright alert, which can be a warning, a requirement to watch an educational video, a warning that requires the customer to acknowledge having read it, or a temporary slowdown of service.

The specific alerts and in what order they're issued will vary for the ISPs, which will presumably be announcing their specific policies this week. Both AT&T and Verizon's plans for the program were reportedly leaked to TorrentFreak, however. If those documents are genuine, it seems the policies could look pretty different.

The document purported to be from AT&T says customers will receive email alerts at first. After the fourth and fifth alert, "certain websites" will redirect to "an educational page" and customers will be required to complete a short tutorial before they can access those sites again. After fifth infraction, the document warns, the content owner could sue and force AT&T to turn over the customer's information.

According to the document purported to be from Verizon, the ISP will deliver the first alerts by phone and email. The third and fourth alerts will trigger a webpage that requires the customer to acknowledge receiving the alert. Then after the fifth and sixth infractions, Verizon will throttle bandwidth:

Fifth and Sixth Alerts:

Redirect your browser to a special web page where you will be given several options.

You can:

Agree to an immediate temporary (2 or 3 day) reduction in the speed of your Internet access service to 256kbps (a little faster than typical dial-up speed);

Agree to the same temporary (2 or 3 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. There is a $35 review fee (that you will get back if you win). For subscribers who meet certain need-based eligibility criteria. the review fee will be waived by the AAA.

There is no mention of what happens after that, but the CCI does not require ISPs to cut off service or permanently throttle speeds. The new alert system seems more like the latest incarnation of the takedown requests sent to users under the Copyright Act. Director Jill Lesser said in a radio interview that Lesser said that once a user has been warned six times, "we're just not going to send them any more alerts. Because they are not the kind of customer that we're going to reach with this program."

It has been reported that the ISPs may give the names of repeat infringers to copyright owners in order to pursue legal action, but this has been disputed by the CCI, which says it does not give out customer information. The program has also been criticized as a threat to public Wi-Fi networks, which the CCI has denied, saying that only residential customers will be included in the program. Additionally, the CCI says customers will be able to appeal to a third party reviewer if an alert is falsely triggered.

The CCI isn't a completely partisan effort. The advisory board includes Gigi Sohn, CEO of the fierce consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, who joined in order to act as a watchdog and push for a "balanced" approach. The Copyright Alert System is not much different than what carriers have already been doing for the past five or six years, she noted, except that the process is now more formalized.

"'There are a lot of rumors. I'm glad this thing is launching just so people can actually see how it works in real life," she told The Verge. "They're really trying to do this in a way that will limit false positives. Nothing's perfect but you have to give them credit that they've tried to build in privacy protections and consumer protections, and they're trying to do their best, but there are some people who are not going to like this regardless."

American ISPs have never interfered in their customers' activities like this before

The other board members are Jules Polonetsky, director of the Future of Privacy Forum, a think tank with industry tries, and Jerry Berman, chairman of the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee. Berman was policy director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation before he and six other defectors left to start a rival group, the Center for Democracy and Technology, which was more focused on lobbying in Washington.

Committed pirates can use a VPN or a variety of workarounds to evade the alert system, or brush off the alerts since nothing happens after the six strikes. Similar systems exist in Europe and elsewhere around the world, but American ISPs have never interfered in their customers' activities like this before. That may be why the CCI and ISPs are staying tight-lipped about the new policies. Customers will probably be a little freaked out by the idea that their ISP is monitoring their internet use, and the participating companies must frame the new policies tactfully.

The Verge
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