Internet Service Providers Are About to Crack Down on lllegal File-Sharing

A long-planned anti-piracy measure will be rolling out "over the next several weeks."

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Back in July 2011, a coalition of U.S. Internet providers -- including AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Cablevision, and Time Warner Cable -- signed on to an agreement to crack down on online copyright infringers. Or, well, to "crack down." The terms of the agreement emphasized user education over user punishment: Instead of cutting infringing users off from Internet services, the providers dreamed up a "six strikes" approach to infringement notification: Copyright holders would do their standard scanning for infringement. They would then cross-reference suspect IP addresses against the ISPs that control them. The copyright holders would then send a message to infringers -- and, under the agreement, the ISPs would in turn commit to forwarding those messages to their customers. For up to six of those messages. The agreement's goal, Ars Technica noted at the time, was to "educate and stop the alleged content theft in question, not to punish. No ISP wants to lose a customer or see a customer face legal trouble based on a misunderstanding, so the alert system provides every opportunity to set the record straight."

The plan, though, was never implemented. Instead, its launch kept getting postponed. And postponed. And postponed. In March, the ISP crackdown was predicted to have a July 2012 launch. And July came and went.

But bad news, torrenters! The ISP crackdown, as of today, appears imminent. According to a report in The Hill, the infringement alert system will be implemented "over the next several weeks." The report quotes Jill Lesser, the executive director of the Center for Copyright Information -- the organization overseeing the new anti-piracy program -- as saying, "We're really close and we'll start seeing alerts over the next several weeks." (She prefaces that comment with a nod to the long build-up to the system's launch: "There are [implementation] dates in draft materials that are not set in stone and we don't want to create any expectations we can't meet....")

The Hill's report, though, confirms an earlier story from the blog TorrentFreak, which obtained internal documents from AT&T specifying a November 28 launch date for the alert program. Those documents also suggested that the cooperation between service providers and copyright holders could facilitate legal action against infringers. Under the alert system, TorrentFreak noted, "Internet providers have to inform copyright holders about which IP-addresses are repeatedly flagged. The MPAA and RIAA can then use this information to ask the court for a subpoena, so they can obtain the personal details of the account holder."

Lesser insists that the arrangement is not SOPA Lite. Receiving an alert "doesn't mean you're any more liable to be sued or the content owner has any more eligibility to sue someone," she put it. And Internet subscribers' accounts won't be terminated as part of the program, she said; instead, the plan will allow for "mitigation measures" if users fail to respond to alerts. Not only may a service provider temporarily slow down those users' Internet speeds, or direct them to an online tutorial when they try to access popular websites; they also might implement other penalties. Which are up to the service providers themselves (who, on their own, have very little incentive to punish copyright infringers to begin with). 

The main hope in all this seems to be that it will, essentially, scare users straight -- and that the "scorched earth tactics" of the past won't be necessary now that copyright holders have used those tactics to make their point. As the draft language of the agreement puts it, "It's likely that very few subscribers who after having received multiple alerts, will persist (or allow others to persist) in the content theft." That attitude might be pragmatic; it might be Pollyanna-ish. Either way, we'll soon find out which it is. 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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