August 18, 2022

To Slow Piracy, Internet Providers Ready Penalties

After years of negotiations with Hollywood and the music industry, the nation’s top Internet providers have agreed to a systematic approach to identifying customers suspected of digital copyright infringement and then alerting them via e-mail or other means.

Under the new process, which was announced Thursday, several warnings would be issued, with progressively harsher consequences if the initial cautions were ignored.

The companies took pains to say that the agreement did not oblige Internet providers to shut down a repeat offender’s account, and that the system of alerts was meant to be “educational.” But they noted that carriers would retain their right to cut off any user who violated their terms of service.

In bringing together the media companies and Internet carriers, the deal demonstrates how the once-clear line separating those two businesses has been blurred. Eight years ago, the Recording Industry Association of America had to sue Verizon to try to uncover the identity of a customer who was sharing music online. This year, Comcast completed its merger with NBC, bringing an owner of digital content and a conduit for it under the same roof.

Now the Internet providers are hoping to profit as they pipe music and video of the nonpirated variety to their customers.

“The I.S.P.’s want to cooperate with Hollywood because the carriers recognize that their own growth depends in part on bundled content strategies,” said Eric Garland of BigChampagne, which tracks online media traffic. “They don’t want to be just utilities providing Internet access, but premium content distributors as well.”

The system announced on Thursday involves a series of six warnings that an Internet provider can send to a customer whom the media companies have identified as a possible copyright infringer.

The warnings escalate from simple e-mail notifications to, at levels 5 and 6, a set of “mitigation measures,” like reduced connection speeds or a block on Web browsing. As the alerts progress, a customer must acknowledge that he understands the notice. Customers will also have the opportunity to contest the complaint.

The effect on consumers, the companies hope, will be more of a deterrent-by-annoyance — rather than the random lightning bolt of litigation that was once the preferred method of enforcement by the recording industry association, one of the parties to the agreement.

The media companies were also represented by the Motion Picture Association of America and groups acting on behalf of independent record companies and filmmakers. The Internet carriers involved in the deal include ATT, Cablevision, Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.

The music and movie companies, which estimate that digital piracy costs the United States economy $16 billion in lost revenue each year, have been eager for an efficient way to deal with the problem.

As illegal downloading has become ingrained as a cultural habit, especially among young people, expensive litigation has become less effective, and the lawsuits against individuals were something of a public relations disaster for the music companies. The new deal, the companies say, offers plenty of chances for even the most recalcitrant pirates to reform.

“This is a sensible approach to the problem of online content theft and, importantly, one that respects the privacy and rights of our subscribers,” Randal S. Milch, executive vice president and general counsel for Verizon, said in a statement.

The agreement has an unlikely origin: it came about as a result of an effort to crack down on child pornography that was led by Andrew M. Cuomo while he was the New York attorney general.

Steve Lohr contributed reporting.

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