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Major Internet Service Providers to Implement Copyright Alert System

Sometime in November 2012, the major Internet service providers (ISPs) will implement a copyright alert system (CAS) whose goal is to cut down on illegal peer-to-peer file sharing of copyrighted material.  (See EDUCAUSE blogs on April 5, 2012 and July 5, 2011 for background information on this nascent effort.)

In July 2011, a coalition of U.S. entertainment companies and ISPs announced a new effort to combat copyright infringement.  This collaboration created the Center for Copyright Information (CCI) with the goal of educating users about copyright – by highlighting its importance on the economy and jobs and by directing people to legitimate ways of accessing content online.  CCI members include the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), and the five major ISPs - AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon.  The CCI Advisory Board includes consumer advocates and privacy experts from the Congressional Internet Caucus Advisory Committee, iKeepSafe, the Future of Privacy Forum, and Public Knowledge.

The signed agreement among the coalition creates a uniform system for “Copyright Alerts” (CAS), which will be comprised of a series of six escalating warnings sent to Internet subscribers when their accounts are used to illegally download copyrighted material.  The system will work like this.  Content owners will notify or flag an ISP if they believe an IP address is infringing their content.  The ISP will then determine which subscriber account matches the IP address and then send an alert to that subscriber notifying him/her that the account may have been used for illegal file sharing.  For example, the first set of alerts will include educational material on protecting copyright and the consequences of illegal file sharing.  If the illegal downloading continues after receiving these initial alerts, the ISPs will implement “mitigation measures” including reducing Internet speed temporarily, or suspending access.  A subscriber will stop receiving alerts after the ISP sends them a sixth, and final, copyright alert, according to CCI Executive Director Jill Lesser.  She goes on to say, "If you continue to engage in copyright infringement, you're not going to continue to get alerts.  In our mind, we're going to target consumers that respond to these alerts. The alerts stop after that last level and nothing else happens under the program."

According to the CCI, another feature of the CAS will be the ability of consumers to ask for a review of the alerts if they believe these were sent in error.  An independent review program will be operated by the American Arbitration Association.

Critics of the program have expressed concerns that the CAS would provide an opening for content owners to sue users of Internet services.   Writes one, "Internet providers have to inform copyright holders about which IP-addresses are repeatedly flagged.  The MPAA and RIAA can then use this information to ask the court for a subpoena, so they can obtain the personal details of the account holder."  Lesser counters that receiving an alert "doesn't mean you're any more liable to be sued or the content owner has any more eligibility to sue someone."

EDUCAUSE continues to agree with Center for Democracy and Technology’s position that the new system has the “potential to be an important educational vehicle that will help reduce peer-to-peer online copyright infringement.  Whether it will meet that promise or instead will undermine the rights of Internet users will depend on how it is implemented.”  For now, we will wait to see how the system unfolds.

EDUCAUSE will continue to monitor and report on this issue.


It is interesting to contrast the approach in the US with that followed in the UK where there has been less consensus on how to deal with copyright infringement. The previous administration passed the Digital Economy Act which included provision for barring subscribers who repeatedly offended. However establishing the mechanics of how this will work in practice has proved troublesome with the result that, two and a half years after becoming law, the Act is nowhere near being implemented. Consequently rights holders have taken to using the existing Copyright Act to obtain injunctions to require ISPs to block sites hosting illegal content.

During the course of the various consultations, the UK university sector has been recognised as having effective policies and procedures for dealing with peer to peer activity. Here the conditions of use are linked to disciplinary procedures and this has proved to be an effective deterrent to repeat offending by students. We are not currently within the scope of the Digital Economy Act but like Educause, continue to monitor the situation.