Meet the New Copyright Cop: Your Internet Service Provider

There's a new sheriff in town, and he's charging you $40 to $240 a month for the privilege of watching your every move online.

I am talking about the ISP police, of course.

[ Also on InfoWorld.com: It's not just downloading -- stream a YouTube video, go directly to jail, Cringely warns. | For a humorous take on the tech industry's shenanigans, subscribe to Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

For the past few years, record and movie industry lobbyists have tried to get Congress and international treaty organizations to force service providers to police their networks for "illegal content" -- essentially, to block users who download movies and music from BitTorrent sites and whatever P2P networks are still left standing.

Now they don't have to because several of the biggest ISPs in the country have voluntarily signed off on a plan concocted by the Recording Industry Association of America and the Motion Picture Association of America that turns them into copyright cops.

Rather than snuff file swappers -- also known as paying broadband customers -- entirely out of existence, the new plan is built around the concept of "education." The plan gives downloaders plenty of notice; you get four warnings before the ISP starts to get nasty by throttling your connection or blocking certain sites and two more before they may (or may not) temporarily separate you from the InterWebs.

Feel like you've been wrongly accused? You'll have to pony up $35 for an "independent review" from an entity chosen by the Center for Copyright Information, a group created for the purpose of enforcing this agreement. What happens after that is anyone's guess; the CCI site doesn't offer any details about the process, though the Electronic Frontier Foundation notes that saying "my unsecured wireless router got pwned by an evil downloader" works only once as a defense, which is seriously bad news to Internet cafes around the world.

This is the sequel to The RIAA Gone Wild, Part 1. You remember the RIAA's brain-dead plan to sue file swappers out of existence and/or scare those scofflaws straight, right? We all know how well that worked; the campaign also created legions of people who now hate the music and movie mavens with a vivid specificity.

This is Part Deux -- a less nasty option than suing teenagers, pensioners, and dead people, to be sure, but one that turns the ISPs into the bad guys.

Why did the service providers agree? Because the ISPs are turning into content providers themselves. Two of them -- Time Warner and Comcast -- already own TV and movie studios. The others desperately need content to pump over these fat pipes they're connecting to our homes; they want to get out of the commodity plumbing business and into the premium water-delivery business. That means playing nice with the folks who own the shows people are paying to see (or not paying, as the case may be).

This agreement is actually a compromise that took two years to work out. Imagine what this deal would have looked like if the RIAA and MPAA got everything they wanted.

As to be expected, the Center for Copyright Information might better be titled the Center for Copyright Propaganda, Brought to You in Living Color by Hollywood. For example:

Content theft is estimated to cost the U.S. economy $58 billion, 373,000 American jobs and $16 billion in lost employee earnings every year, and to cost federal, state and local governments $2.6 billion each year in lost tax revenue.

Those figures come from a report generated by the Institute for Policy Innovation, an uber-conservative think tank based in Lewisville, Texas, that is, among other things, also pro tobacco and anti open source. (Not that the right wingers have a lock on this -- the Dems seem very happy to take money from Hollywood to promote its copyright agenda.)

Are the music and movie industries in free fall? Yep, just like so many other industries whose distribution models have run headfirst into the Internet (like, say, journalism). But I think years of customer neglect bordering on abuse is a bigger culprit. The ability to buy a single good song for a buck instead of having to shell out $15 for a CD with one good song and 11 crappy ones had more to do with the drop in music revenues than Pirate Bay. Stupidity and greed, not file swapping, killed the radio star.

As for movies, I'm quite done with paying $10 a ticket and $6 for stale popcorn to watch 20 minutes of commercials before the show I wanted to see actually starts. And having paid more than my share of late DVD return fees, I was quite tickled to see Blockbuster take a dirt nap.

As someone smart once said, bite the hand that feeds you and eventually the hand will bite back. The music and movie industries have discovered this too late. Getting the ISPs to do their dirty work for them won't be enough to save them.

What will you do when the ISP police come for you? Post your plans below or email me: cringe@infoworld.com.

This article, "Meet the new copyright cop: Your Internet service provider," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the crazy twists and turns of the tech industry with Robert X. Cringely's Notes from the Field blog, and subscribe to Cringely's Notes from the Underground newsletter.

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