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It begins: Six-strikes copyright smackdown starts in US

Carrot and stick policies begin this week

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Five of the biggest US internet service providers will begin rolling out a Copyright Alert System (CAS) this week as part of a new six-strikes policy of restricting internet access designed to "educate rather than punish."

Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Cablevision, and Time Warner have all signed up to the plan from the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), an organization set up by the ISPs, the RIAA, and the MPAA to build the anti-piracy system. An advisory board of internet interest groups like Public Knowledge is also onboard, providing a fig-leaf of respectability and common sense.

The CAS system scans peer-to-peer and BitTorrent traffic for pirated material and records the IP address and ISP of those sharing such content. A copyright alert is then automatically pinged to the end user warning them of the claim of illicit behavior.

The first two alerts are described as "educational", and according to a leaked AT&T draft plan may include requiring the user to take a copyright quiz. The next two missives will ask for an acknowledgement from the user that a report has been received, and then the system moves into "Mitigation" measures

The same AT&T document suggests that stage five is letting the copyright holder sue the user, but the CCI plan doesn't mention this directly. Instead the CCI warns that internet speeds can be reduced, but not severed altogether, and the user must contact the ISP directly to discuss things further. After 12 months of non-infringement, the warning count is reset to zero.

It's possible to appeal a CCI accusation, but it'll cost you $35 to get a one-time session with the American Arbitration Association (no appeals allowed, but you get your money back if you win) and the fee will be waived if the user has "a gross monthly income that is less than 300% of the federal poverty income level, are full-time students receiving needs-based financial aid, or who qualify for one of a series of means-tested federal benefits," the CCI says.

"We hope this cooperative, multi-stakeholder approach will serve as a model for addressing important issues facing all who participate in the digital entertainment ecosystem," said the CCI's executive director Jill Lesser in a blog post.

"We all benefit from a better understanding of the choices available and the rights and responsibilities that come with using digital content," she writes, "thereby helping to drive investment in content creation and innovative services that offer exciting ways to enjoy music, video and all digital content."

The CAS scheme had originally been planned for roll-out the week after last Thanksgiving, but was put on hold when Hurricane Sandy stopped testing. Individual ISPs will be unveiling their own variations on the plans shortly.

So, will the hardcore digital pirates be turning in their grappling hooks and logging onto iTunes or cable services as a result of this? Not a bit of it. The software appears to be pretty easy to get around and won't affect streaming services or cloudy storage sites of purloined media at all.

Instead, CAS is going to catch the most low-hanging of fruit – the kids market – and there'll be a lot of hot bottoms at bed-time or time on the naughty step when the first warnings come in. More than a few people with unsecured Wi-Fi systems may also be getting a reminder to see who is on their network.

The CCI isn't making any money out of the system since the appeals funds go to the AAA, but the group is hoping this is another way to nudge consumers into buying more and pirating less. How successful this will be remains to be seen – if warnings are spammed out the CCI could get very unpopular indeed, and lawsuits are likely.

But Big Content is desperate to stop piracy and the ISPs are hoping they can get more bandwidth back, although given the very basic technology involved in CAS, that's unlikely. If streaming isn't covered, they'll face an increasing amount of purloined material being piped.

The move could be a boon to smaller ISPs, though none of them are taking part. In much-too-much of the US, customers have little or no choice of ISP thanks to anti-competitive regulations enforced by the major networks and some of the vast geographical distances involved, but people might be more tempted to look at other providers if the CAS system gets too annoying.

Dane Jasper, CEO of California ISP Sonic.net told The Register that he was uncomfortable about the close integration with trade associations and ISPs behind the CCI, but more importantly the scheme raises a fundamental problem in its approach to user identification and the rule of law.

"In order to have legitimate adversarial process in a court of law and engage due process you need to identify who the actual offender is," Jasper explained. "In most cases demonstrably these content companies don't seem to be interested in finding out who the actual offender is and instead want to determine who has got a Visa or MasterCard and can settle this and be done with it."

According to the US courts, Jasper has a point. In May, a US judge ruled that IP addresses could not be used in this way after K-Beech, a provider of films for "adults who enjoy extremely graphic and explicit XXX entertainment," sued an octogenarian described by the judge as having "neither the wherewithal nor the interest in using BitTorrent."

The overwhelming majority of Sonic's users are law-abiding, Jasper said. While the company responds appropriately to legal requests, it wouldn't force "unwarranted searches" on customers.

While no ISP wants pirates, enforcement is only one side of the approach needed to cutting piracy, he suggested. The other is to provide people with content at a reasonable price in a format they can use as they like.

"Until the content industry breaks down the barriers to accessing content at a decent cost there's always going to be this back and forth," he said. "And fundamentally, from a technology perspective, the pirates will always have the upper hand." ®

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