Policy makers and technology executives at ISPs should pay attention to an anti-piracy agreement that was reached this week between a group of entertainment companies and AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable and Verizon.
Time's Techland has the details on how the plan will work. Essentially, those found to be intellectual pirates will be given six warnings, with the ramifications for each gradually tracking upwards. Not even the sixth will result in disconnection, according to Techland:
By the sixth alert, all participating ISPs will either throttle the user or require educational measures. The entertainment industry doesn't expect that many people will persist with copyright violations at this point.
Ars Technica points out that the White House - which posted a blog by U.S. Intellectual Property Enforcement Coordinator Victoria Espinel about the agreement - is on board and, indeed, helped broker the deal. The agreement is being positioned as a reasoned and relatively mild approach to a big problem. If successful, the pact can drastically cut court fees of companies trying to protect their content while not running out the big guns against subscribers - unless they really ask for it.
As always, there is a fly in the ointment. The woods are full of ideas that seem sound when imaginary scenarios at the extremes are considered. The death penalty, for instance, seems like a much more reasonable punishment when there is incontrovertible proof that the accused is guilty. Things get a bit more dicey, however, when the evidence is grayer. A month doesn't go by, after all, when a prisoner isn't freed by DNA-based evidentiary techniques not available when the person was tried.
This is similar. Stopping people who flaunt the law and steal from studios is accepted as a good thing. But the idea of turning ISPs into enforcement agencies could also be a step on a slippery slope. Writes Ars Technica's Nate Anderson:
What's the limit to ISP intermediaries aiding with private enforcement? That remains unclear. Both Espinel and the industries involved favor schemes to deputize intermediaries to police behavior in ways that would have been anathema to the old telephone companies. Today, ISPs will take action against subscribers based on repeated allegations of copyright infringement; tomorrow, they might be approached to help with auction fraudsters, corporate hackers, those accused of repeated libel or defamation, or child pornographers.
Invariably, close calls will emerge, and ISPs will be forced to make difficult choices. Just as certainly, there will be legal challenges questioning the rights of the parties to the initiative to set up a shadow system and play cop. Indeed, it seems clear that this agreement will end up in court.