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ISPs, Studios Target Peer-to-Peer Pirates

Comcast and its fellow major ISPs are about to take a page from cellphone providers and start alerting regular customers when they illegally access content via peer-to-peer networks.

If that doesn't work, those ISPs will fire off warnings about stronger measures, such as slower traffic, or redirecting users, in an attempt to hit illegal downloaders where it hurts: at speed and efficiency.

Comcast got into trouble with the FCC in August 2008 for its slowing/blocking of BitTorrent peer-to-peer traffic, a move that ultimately helped spur the FCC to codify its Internet openness principles.

This time, however, there is an industry-wide effort-including content providers and distributors- aimed at warning folks who may not know they are pirating content via peer-to-peer nets before they reach the point of ISP intervention. That's according to Jill Lesser, executive director of the Center for Copyright Information and the executive in charge of launching the new anti-piracy effort, which will roll out across those ISPs over the next several weeks.

Lesser spoke with B&C Washington bureau chief John Eggerton about the new consumer alert program.

What was the spur to this initiative?

After what I would call disagreement over how to deal with the problem of peer-to-peer file sharing between the content industry and the technology industry, this was the culmination of a three-year effort to come to agreement on the best way to combat the problem in a voluntary, consumer-friendly way.

Over the course of those three years, as technology developed and people learned more about consumer behaviors, the goal was educating consumers with a system that was focused on reaching consumers where they can hear and understand you and then focusing on the positive side, which is offering alternatives for finding digital content.

I think both sides agree that there is an interest in decreasing piracy. The stars aligned after many years.

So, which stars have aligned in this?

MPAA, IFTA [Independent Film and Television Alliance], RIAA [Recording Industry Association of America] and the five largest ISPs: AT&T, Verizon, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cablevision.

When is this copyright alert system going into effect?

The system will begin within the next several weeks. I don't have specific dates because we are still wrapping up the technology development. As I think everybody knows, it's hard to put hard dates on technology, but we are closing in on implementation. So this will be a staggered rollout, rather than a one-day, coordinated curtain-raiser. There are five separate systems, and ramp-ups within those systems.

While consumers will get notice of the implementation, most consumers won't get alerts and may not be aware of the program because they are not engaging in peer-to-peer file sharing.

We saw a story saying the system would be used to alert ISPs. We thought this was consumer-facing?

The process is that the content owners generate a notice. They go out on a peer-to-peer network and identify an IP address that is distributing the piece of content they are looking for. They then send that notice to the ISP, which then matches it to the subscriber using it and passes it along to the subscriber.

So the copyright alert is a subscriber system, but the mechanism is kind of a one-way system starting with the content owner looking through their content and then passing on the notice to the ISP, which generates the alert to the consumers.

Why only peer-to-peer and not other types of illegal downloads?

Really because, No. 1, this was sort of what we could bite off and chew in this early stage of cooperation in this voluntary initiative. I think that the other piece is that, when you look at what the ISPs are best able to address since they are providing the connectivity, this is the area where they can be most helpful in passing along notices to consumers.

How does the content owner determine whether it is an illegal download?

The content owner has a sophisticated process for identifying copyrighted content. On the movie side in particular, they use both an automated and a manual process to make sure they are looking for a whole file as opposed to a clip.

Your website says that after a number of warnings, companies can take steps to mitigate the situation, including slowing traffic. Can you walk us through the alerts and talk about how they escalate and just what mitigation measures are involved?

The system is primarily intended to be educational and non-punitive. There are five or six alert levels, depending on which company we are talking about. The first one or two are educational. They try to say: ‘Hey, you might not know you are doing this. It might have been done by somebody in your house for a variety of reasons. But, here is the file that you have allegedly traded. Here are some ways to stop and some opportunities to find legal content.' If that computer continues to be tagged, they get a second phase of an acknowledgment alert which requires the user to say they had received it.

Once it reaches the mitigation level, the goal is to stop people there and say: ‘Hey, you have received four or five of these and we really mean it.' Every company will have a slightly different approach to what the mitigation measure is, but it is going to take mostly the form of putting people on a landing page and putting them through an educational video or curriculum that is very brief. It requires someone to go through it to move on and get online.

Could this system be expanded to other forms of illegal downloads?

We are hoping we will be successful in launching a program that is consumer-friendly and that consumers respond to and reduces piracy. I think that if it is successful, there is certainly an opportunity to bring others to the table and also expand the program, but it is not something we are in discussions on right now.

Is there an appeal process for those who think they have been incorrectly targeted?

Yes, the process will be run by the American Arbitration Association, and it will be offered when they receive one of the later alerts and they can challenge the validity of the alert.

The website also talked about slowing broadband speeds as another way to get their attention.

One of the ISPs is going to engage in a brief slowdown. So for a couple of days you will see a reduction in your bandwidth speeds. But there won't be any interruption of your service.

Which ISP?

I can't say. I just want to make sure all the T's are crossed and I's dotted before we release specifics about one company.

Will it also include blocking and redirection?

You will try to fire up your browsers and you will be redirected to some educational material, maybe for 10 minutes or less. And then you are free to browse.

For some folks, slowing and redirecting sounds like the sort of ISP conduct the FCC targeted in its open Internet rules. How is this different?

I don't think it raises net neutrality issues. We hope that the system works so that very few people get to this level of notice. The point in getting to this level is that you have had four or five alerts saying you need to stop this behavior.

This is not an issue of favoring one site over another or in any way trying to affect their Internet service long-term. It is really intended to catch people's attention and educate them briefly and then get them back on their way.

But why wouldn't someone ultimately lose service if they continued to illegally download content? If you are a serial offender and refuse to stop, the ISP will just let you continue?

The program is not the sum total of all the tools that the content industry and ISPs have at their disposal, obviously. But the programming is really betting on the 90% of more of consumers who are not doing this intentionally or trying to circumvent the law and who we believe will respond to a system that is speaking to them in the right way. For people who are attempting to be serial pirates and circumvent, a program like this is not likely to change their behavior, so they are not really our target.

And once you have received six notices and you have gone through one of these mitigation measures, I think that our view is not to waste resources by continuing to send you alerts you are not responding to. You are just out of the program. At that point, the content owners have a number of opportunities at their disposal to pursue their legal rights.

ISPs have prohibitions in their terms of service as well, and neither of those things is affected by the program. But we really believe that this program will reach and help the vast majority and reduce the overall use of illegal peer-to-peer file sharing. Hard-scale pirates always have to be dealt with separately.

What is your own background?

Law and technology policy. I was with AOL for almost a decade leading their domestic policy team.

What exactly is the Center for Copyright Information?

An organization established under a memorandum of understanding between the content industry and the five largest ISPs to help do two things: Implement the Copyright Alert System and educate the public about the system and the alternatives for finding content online.

And how do you educate the public about the program so you don't get the kind of online pushback that helped kill online piracy-prevention measures in SOPA/PIPA legislation?

We are trying to get that info out now. Also, in advance of any of the implementation, we are launching a totally redesigned website for the Center. Our website has been talking to people who already understand this. Our new site will be targeted to consumers. 'I just got an alert. What is this and what do I do? How does the process work?'

There are a lot of people who, when you talk about copyright, their eyes glaze over and they have no idea what you are talking about. So, this is talking to people about the content they love, the movies and TV shows, and what it means to try and find that content legally and why.

This program has gotten some criticism.

We are seeing some pushback from certain advocacy groups based on incomplete information. That will happen, but hopefully the consumers we are trying to get to will see it as a positive move, and not anything akin to SOPA/PIPA.

I think, most importantly, for those people who are really concerned about SOPA/PIPA because it was a potential overbroad government change in the legal structure for the Internet, this is precisely the kind of answer that people will be looking for. It is voluntary, and in stage one, and is certainly changeable and nimble. Hopefully this is the way you combat a clearly legal problem without having to have unintended consequences, which I think was the main legitimate complaint about SOPA and PIPA.

How important is it for cable operators and other ISPs to get a handle on these illegal downloads, particularly as they move their content to the Web via TV Everywhere?

If you look at the way that their business model has changed over the past decade, I think it goes without saying that they have an interest in it and that they wouldn't be doing it if it was not in their business interests.

I think getting this right and seeing a change in attitude on the part of consumers about embracing these new ways to get content will benefit everybody.

E-mail comments to and follow him on Twitter: @eggerton

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.