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Arrr! Comcast working on new tech to nudge PIRATES to go straight

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Comcast, the largest US cable operator and one of the nation's leading broadband providers, is reportedly working on a new approach to copyright-infringement prevention that would favor the carrot over the stick.

Under the proposed plan, customers spotted engaging in illegal downloads would be sent notifications in real time, letting them know where they can go to pay for legitimate copies of the content they're pirating.

According to a report in Variety on Monday, those helpful hints would not be limited to a specific broadband company's own video-on-demand library. They would also point customers to competing content companies' sites, such as Amazon or Hulu, if those were the only places to purchase the given media legally. Broadband providers would be rewarded for directing their subscribers to other companies' download sites with referral fees.

Comcast has refused to comment on the plan, but sources claim it has been making the rounds of major content companies and distributors, looking to drum up support for an industry-wide collaborative effort.

Currently, Comcast participates with other large US broadband companies – including AT&T, Cablevision, Time Warner, and Verizon – in the Copyright Alert System (CAS), the notorious "Six Strikes" anti-piracy plan managed by the Center for Copyright Information (CCI), a media industry trade group.

Under the CAS program, broadband providers scan traffic from peer-to-peer software, such as BitTorrent, looking for content that has been identified as being copyrighted. When an illicit download is detected, an automated warning letter is fired off to the customer. After the fifth such offense, the internet company is free to throttle the customer's speeds, or even sue.

France was the first country to introduce such a system with Hadopi, albeit an even stricter version that threatened to cut internet users off after just three strikes. But Hadopi was dismantled in July after a court ruled that portions of the law were unconstitutional.

More crucially for media companies, Hadopi was never successful at curbing piracy. For all its bark, it only brought in a paltry €750 in fines, total – and only one internet user was ever cut off due to copyright offenses.

Comcast's new plan would take a different approach, by emphasizing the benefits for users of purchasing legal content, rather than the punishments that would await for repeated offenses. So far, CCI is not involved in the new scheme, although its participation would not be ruled out in the future.

For Comcast – which is not only one of the largest US broadband provider but also owns a variety of media properties, including Universal Pictures and such television networks as NBC, E!, and SyFy – the technology would be an opportunity to turn piracy into opportunity, by nudging casual downloaders toward legal content sources.

That is, if the system actually works. More-dedicated downloaders already employ a range of techniques designed to disguise their activities, including encryption, VPN, and anonymizing techniques. Still, sources claim Comcast "knows the solution is feasible."

So far, however, that's all it is. Comcast's engineers reportedly "haven't formally begun working on it" and no timetable for its rollout has been set, as the company continues to try to win support for its scheme among the media and broadband industries. ®

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