Friday, March 1, 2013

"Six Strikes," Piracy, and Your Internet


During summer 2012, we all heard tell of internet service providers agreeing to a new Copyright Alert System (CAS), intending to curb online piracy.  All we really knew of it back then is that it involved your ISP sending you messages when you were suspected of downloading copyrighted works illegally, ultimately cutting you off when you crossed the line too many times.  Of course the RIAA and MPAA were on board, and brought with them major ISP’s Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner.  Critics, including myself, took issue with this being a potential violation of users’ privacy, as well as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) containing language that requires ISP’s to be able to terminate user accounts for repeat offenders.  Outside of that, we didn’t have any other real information on how the final impact to users was going to look.

Well this week the CAS went into effect, and ISP’s will now be sending warnings to customers whenever they see something that can be considered copyright infringement.  If you haven’t gotten a letter in the mail from your particular ISP you should be shortly, and hopefully that letter clearly tells you all what’s going on.  In case it doesn’t (which let’s be serious, it won’t), ol’ Tushar is here to let you know what’s up.

The way it works is pretty simple – content owners trawl P2P traffic to see if there’s any of their own copyrighted stuff out there.  If they find some, they track your IP number and report it to your ISP.  Your ISP matches up your IP address with your account information, and SHAZAM – you get, as they call it, an “educational” message saying that there’s illegal content being downloaded from your account.  Your ISP, contrary to fears from last year, will not be monitoring your internet use.  From everything I’ve read, what they’re expressly looking for is peer-to-peer BitTorrent traffic.  The monitoring doesn’t get into email attachments or private online storage like Dropbox and its ilk.  If you don’t use BitTorrent, then I really don’t think you have anything to worry about.  And according to LifeHacker, right now Usenet is probably safe too.

But come on, we’ve all done it at one point or another.

These warnings can be called “strikes,” and in all cases six strikes will trigger the use of a handful of punitive methods at your ISP’s disposal to deter you from repeating this kind of behavior.  Verizon will cap your speed at 256k as punishment (can you imagine coming down from FiOS to THAT?).  Comcast will present persistent alerts in their browser windows, and users will have to speak with Comcast security to be educated in how to download legally before their internet service is unlocked.  Time Warner will have a similar unlock system.  And finally AT&T will force the user to an educational website before unlocking their internet again.   In most cases, after four warnings the user has to agree to a “I’ll never do it again guys, I promise” landing page they’re forced to before they browse the web.  CAS warnings can be challenged to the American Arbitration Association for a number of different reasons, and the going rate for said challenge seems to be $35.  No word on whether or not the user will be reimbursed for winning the challenge.  Also in most cases, 6 months of pirate-free activity and you start back at zero.  Ars Technica was nice enough to post pictures of the Comcast editions of these notices, which you can see here.  It’ll give you a much better idea of what I’m trying to illustrate.  You can check some links to your specific ISP’s CAS policies on PCMag.

You’ll notice I use the word “educational” in this post.  That’s not my word – it comes from the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), the brainchild behind the new CAS system.  In their own words:

“As with any innovative system, the process of building the CAS has taken time. We appreciate the collaborative engagement from the many organizations, companies and professionals involved in CCI who helped advise us along the way. CCI and its partners have worked hard to meet our goal of implementing a system that educates consumers about copyright and P2P networks, encourages the use of legal alternatives, and safeguards customer privacy.”

… Education?  Do the RIAA and MPAA (big surprise they back the CCI) really think that people using BitTorrent don’t know the score?  Back when I used to do such things I did it for two reasons – (1) because it was relatively easy and (2) it was free.  And yes, I fully knew that a lot of it was (3) illegal.  No one’s under any kind of illusion that what they’re doing isn't skirting the law.  If the CCI really thinks that education is the problem, then they’re not seeing things clearly, or simply refusing to.

Now thankfully, this isn’t as bad as everyone thought it would be.  Like I mentioned above ISP’s won’t be sniffing packets or monitoring traffic on everything you’re doing (at least that’s what’s reported).  And I get the idea of people getting paid for their work.  I really do.  But this is just a band-aid to the issue.  Copyright law itself has to be re-examined to see what works and what doesn’t now that digital delivery of content has proliferated at such a grand scale.  We’ve seen people pay for content with services like Netflix and Hulu+, even though we all wish they had more content.  Services like HBO Go on the other hand sometimes leave a lot to be desired.  Warner Brothers’ digital copies of blu-rays?  Forget it, it’s a horrible service that’s not transferable between my own damn machines.  The bottom line is that people are willing to pay for content, as long as it’s fair to the user, structured properly, easy,  and most importantly worth their hard-earned money.

Otherwise, Matthew Inman at the Oatmeal makes a whole lot of sense.

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