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Piracy filter gone mad?

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Media giant Time Warner appears to be censoring subscribers to its Road Runner Net access service by corrupting newsgroup messages it fears contain pirated material. (Update: Here is TW's explanation)

For the past fortnight, users of the $44.95 a month service have been complaining that the vast majority of newsgroups messages are “incomplete”, making them unreadable.

While, due to the nature of newsgroups, a certain percentage of incompletes are unavoidable, in a well-run system they usually account for less than 10 per cent. Road Runner customers have been faced with over 90 per cent incompletes and the problem appeared overnight, we have learned.

Since the rest of the Road Runner system appears to be functioning as normal and Time Warner has not reported any technical difficulties, it is reasonable to infer that the company is actively filtering messages in a bid to prevent the exchange of unprotected media files.

Such a move would fit in with Time Warner’s approach to the Internet. It is a leading advocate of controlled and rights-managed content on the Web - unsurprising perhaps since it is the world’s largest media company and owns large chunks of the film, music, TV and book market. And, of course, AOL.

Recently, it has signed deals with and been heavily pushing content-controlled services on Road Runner. Rhapsody from Listen.com (owned by RealNetworks) is Road Runner’s preferred music software. It costs $9.95 a month and offers only streamed music. You can burn tracks onto a CD for an extra 79 cents per track.

Movielink is Road Runner’s answer to the video and film market. Films can be downloaded for between $2.95 and $4.99. The film is playable for 30 days and, once opened, for 24 hours, after which it corrupts itself.

Road Runner has made downloading movies from newsgroups impossible by introducing a 10Mb limit on all messages. Even with modern linking computer files such as Par2, it would take an enormous number of 10Mb files to piece together to make a whole movie.

Reducing that limit to 2Mb in order to remove most MP3 audio files would unduly restrict the service from serving legitimate files. For that reason, it is believed Time Warner has introduced an automated filter to weed out MP3 files. It is not working properly however and has had the effect of wiping out the majority of messages posted.

While it could be argued that such restrictions are almost inevitable in an Internet service from Time Warner, the company gives no warning of the fact and states in its FAQ on newsgroups that Road Runner “provides an uncensored newsfeed. As such, Road Runner does not control the content of the newsgroups available to you.”

It admits to filtering binaries from non-binary groups and HTML from all groups except Microsoft and also filters for spam. However, this still leaves a large number of files unaccounted for.

Road Runner is a cable service run in the US with three million customers. Vice president of Communications at Time Warner Cable, Mark Harrad,
Has not replied to our questions on the matter. ®

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