March 3, 2013

New file-sharing warning system raises some concerns

You may never have heard of a “Six Strikes” warning, but if you share music or video on the Internet, one could be coming to a computer screen near you.

You may never have heard of a “Six Strikes” warning, but if you share music or video on the Internet, one could be coming to a computer screen near you.

Five of the nation’s biggest Internet service providers, including AT&T in Wichita, last week launched Six Strikes, an ambitious nationwide program to reduce illegal file sharing through a series of increasingly dire pop-up warnings – with sanctions for those the industry determines to be repeat copyright infringers.

The system targets popular peer-to-peer sites that assist Internet users in sharing content.

The Internet providers won’t cut off anybody’s access, but customers who ignore the warnings could find their download speeds throttled back or their browsers disabled from reaching certain sites.

AT&T’s customers who get too many warnings will find themselves unable to access the Internet until they complete a brief online course in copyright law.

Customers who want to appeal complaints filed against them by the entertainment industry or other content providers will have to pay $35 to start the process.

Customers must agree to have their cases settled by arbitrators selected by the Center for Copyright Information. The center is an industry group that’s implementing Six Strikes, also known as the Copyright Alert System.

The CCI is made up of representatives of the music and motion picture industry associations, plus the five participating Internet service providers: AT&T, Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner Cable and Verizon.

The CCI did not respond to an e-mail message to its press office seeking comment. AT&T declined to comment, providing a generic written statement issued by the company last week.

“Beginning this week, AT&T will begin accepting notices from content owners who have reason to believe our residential wireline broadband Internet customers are sharing copyrighted material unlawfully using peer-to-peer services,” the statement said. “We believe that this program will help customers better understand what they can do to discourage digital piracy. We also hope it will result in more diverse lawfully available content being made available online, consistent with the collective goal of the participants in the Copyright Alert System.”

AT&T’s statement emphasized the company won’t shut down anyone’s Internet access without a court order and that consumers’ private information won’t be shared with the content providers who file the complaints against them.

“Our commitment remains with our customers, and that is why the approach we developed is focused on customer education rather than punishment,” the statement said.

But just how educational the approach is depends on your point of view, according to Annemarie Bridy, an associate professor of law at the University of Idaho who has published a paper on Six Strikes.

“All in all, it is not a grossly unfair system” because “termination of Internet service is not a sanction that is on the table,” she said.

However, she said she still has concerns about the program because there was no opportunity for the public to participate in formulating the policies – and there’s no way to opt out for most Americans because of the limited competition in landline and home WiFi Internet service.

Bridy, an expert in intellectual property law, said a major concern of hers is that copyright law carves out exceptions for materials used for educational, research, news gathering and other purposes – the so-called “fair use” doctrine.

The automated software algorithms that will generate the warnings to users aren’t good at telling the difference between copyright infringement and fair use, Bridy said.

And while she has yet to see the “educational” materials that will be part of the sanctions, she noted that the industries behind the CCI take a very narrow view of fair use and have a financial interest in discouraging peer-to-peer copying of any kind.

“My guess is that those will not be very balanced materials,” she said.

The website obtained copies of some of the warning messages, which direct users to a list of links to sites where they can purchase access to music and movies, such as iTunes and Google Play.

Bridy said most U.S. consumers of home Internet service will have no choice but to go along with the new system.

The rules of Six Strikes will be added to customer contracts, giving them essentially the force of law without the public input process required to pass a law, Bridy said.

If there were more options for Internet service, customers who don’t like Six Strikes could sign up with another company, Bridy said.

According to the Federal Communications Commission, 91 percent of Americans live in a market with only one or two choices of landline broadband service, she said.

In many of those markets, consumer choice means either a phone company or cable company that are both participating in Six Strikes.

Cox Cable has not joined the Six Strikes program and has no plans to do so, said its Wichita spokeswoman, Sarah Kauffman.

The company believes its own system for handling copyright complaints and notifications meets the requirements of the federal law known as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and is more consumer friendly than the Six Strikes program, Kauffman said.

Cox will send e-mail notifications to customers who illegally download material. She said that in the case of multiple violations, a customer may not be able to access certain sites.

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