Music, movie pirates could face Internet interference

New program targets copyright infringement.

If you've been downloading pirated music, movies and TV shows, Big Brother now is watching and you could find your Internet slowed down or temporarily blocked if you're caught doing it repeatedly.

Five large Internet providers — Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and Cablevision — teamed up with entertainment labels to create the Copyright Alert System, which launched in late February.

Subscribers of those Internet companies who are suspected of sharing copyrighted material illegally are being warned to knock it off. Entertainment industry representatives lurking on file-sharing networks are sniffing out the online scofflaws.

Many smaller Internet providers do the same thing on their own outside of that coalition. They include PenTeleData, which provides Internet service for Service Electric, Blue Ridge Communications and Ironton Telephone Co.

Critics say the Copyright Alert System starts with a presumption of guilt, is an invasion of privacy and was formed without any formal public input.

"It's basically a large system that caters more to the interests of the content industry than it does to good Internet policy," said Adi Kamdar, an activist with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a nonprofit that advocates for digital rights and free speech.

About 5,000 people, including residents of Allentown, Macungie, Pen Argyl and Quakertown, have signed a petition on the White House website opposing the system.

Those are legitimate concerns. But producers of copyrighted material are right to be concerned about their work being pilfered, too.

The program is not expected to stop hardcore pirates who likely wouldn't heed warnings anyway. It's aimed at people who may not know what they're doing is illegal, or may not know it's happening on their Internet account.

The Copyright Alert System doesn't have a death penalty, as Internet providers cannot terminate service to repeat offenders. In that way, it differs from how some of smaller Internet providers operate. PenTeleData will suspend service for up to six months in extreme cases, chief administrative officer Jaime Mendes said.

"We try to be as flexible as we can," he said. "We always give the customers the benefit of the doubt."

The Copyright Alert System is run by the Center for Copyright Information, formed by the entertainment industry and Internet companies. The center says most people never will receive a notice. It says there is no invasion of privacy as the system does not monitor general Internet use and only looks at peer-to-peer networks, also known as P2P.

The networks — BitTorrent is a commonly known one — allow users to share files. Users download software to join the network, and any downloaded file on any computer in the network is available for download by other users.

Representatives of the entertainment labels identify the Internet Protocol addresses of computers making copyrighted files available for sharing. The Internet companies who provide service to those users are told about the violations, and in turn contact their subscribers. They don't tell the entertainment industry the names of the alleged violators.

The system applies only to residential Internet accounts. The Center for Copyright Information says the goal is to educate, not punish, which includes telling people where they can find the entertainment they want legally, such as through Netflix.

"A lot of people who engage in causal infringement sometimes don't know they're doing it affirmatively, or don't understand what aspects are illegal," said Jill Lesser, the center's director.

If you have an unsecured wireless network at home, strangers may be using your network. Or you may not know what other household members are doing. And if you're no longer actively using a peer-to-peer network, old files still could be grabbed by other users without your knowledge, Lesser said.

Each Internet provider participating in the Copyright Alert System handles violations slightly differently, but they generally have six steps escalating from warnings to interfering with your browser.

Verizon says customers who receive a fifth violation notice will have their Internet speed reduced to about dial-up speed for two days. If you get a sixth alert, your speed will be reduced for three days.

AT&T told me that after a fourth notice, subscribers will be temporarily redirected to a landing page where they must review educational material on copyrights before their browser is released.

Comcast customers who get a fifth or sixth warning will receive "a persistent in-browser alert" requiring you to call Comcast to have it removed.

Opponents say the process reverses the American justice system by making those accused of piracy not only prove their innocence, but pay to do it.

"They're able to take punitive action … without proof of you actually violating or infringing on copyright," Kamdar said.

The Center for Copyright Information says on its website there is a "rigorous process" to confirm copyright violations, which includes downloading and reviewing files.

Yet Comcast is telling customers on its website, "Copyright owners do not necessarily know for sure that you've violated their rights in order to send the notice. They simply need to believe in good faith that you might have. So, just because you have received a notice doesn't mean you have broken the law or that you are necessarily in any kind of trouble."

If you get flagged, you can appeal through the American Arbitration Association for a fee of $35, which can be waived if you prove financial hardship. The fee will be refunded if the appeal is successful.

I'd like to hear from anyone in the Lehigh Valley area who gets a copyright violation notice from their Internet provider. More information about the system is on my blog at http://blogs.mcall.com/watchdog.

The Watchdog is published Thursdays and Sundays. Contact me by email at watchdog@mcall.com, by phone at 610-841-2364 (ADOG), by fax at 610-820-6693, or by mail at The Morning Call, 101 N. Sixth St., Allentown, PA, 18101. Follow me on Twitter at mcwatchdog and on Facebook at Morning Call Watchdog.

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