The Recording Industry Association of America's plan to recruit Internet service providers in its battle against illegal file sharing is now underway. AT&T and Cox both confirmed to PC World that they have begun cooperating with the RIAA in some form. Comcast did not say it was working with the RIAA, but did say it was forwarding messages on the behalf of the recording industry to customers. Still a mystery is to what extent ISPs are cooperating with the RIAA and what it takes to get booted from your ISP for illegally swapping copyright protected content online.
The RIAA announced the shift in its strategy last December: Instead of targeting individual file sharers with lawsuits, as it had done in the past, the organization would work with ISPs to find suspected offenders and -- after a series of warnings -- potentially cut off their Internet access altogether. The RIAA initially said "major ISPs" would participate, revealing neither specific companies nor a firm timeframe for the program's launch.
A string of media reports and blog postings today fueled speculation about participation by AT&T, Cox Communications, and Comcast. Much of the information cited, however, came from unnamed sources and contained conflicting information. I spoke with representatives from each of the three companies to sort it all out.
RIAA's Original Plan
The RIAA's original announcement outlined the following procedure:
• The RIAA contacts an ISP after identifying a suspected illegal file sharer on its network.
• The ISP then forwards a formal warning on to the customer.
• If the activity doesn't stop, the ISP sends one or two more warnings.
• If the activity still doesn't stop, the ISP may slow down the customer's access, or ultimately discontinue it.
That process appears to be essentially what Cox now has in place. The company passes along any RIAA warnings, a spokesperson tells me, and works with the customer to pinpoint and stop the problem. It's the same process Cox has used for years with copyright infringement cases, the spokesperson says, and it has rarely resulted in any complete cutoffs.
"Since the time we implemented our DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act) notification process, we've sent hundreds of thousands of warnings to customers but have only had to terminate the accounts of a tiny fraction of them," says Cox's David Deliman.
Less than one-tenth of 1 percent of cases have resulted in account termination, Deliman says. What's not clear is what determines whether an account will be terminated, and whether that judgment comes from Cox or from the RIAA. My request for that information was not answered prior to our publishing deadline.
AT&T is participating in a trial program related to illegal file sharing and the RIAA, a spokesperson confirms. It does not, he says, involve "takedown notices" or a "three strikes and you're out" type of system.
"This trial is about customer education and deterrence," AT&T's Mike Balmoris explains. "We do not assume or make any accusations of wrongdoing by the customer."
Aside from stating that the trial was not a "three strikes" plan, as some media outlets had reported, Balmoris would not directly confirm nor deny whether any customer accounts had been or could potentially be terminated as part of the process. Rather, he simply stated that the company had found the majority of customers stopped the behavior on their own after receiving the notices.
Some early reports had suggested Comcast was also involved in an RIAA-oriented plan; however, a Comcast spokesperson says its policies and procedures have not changed.
"Comcast, like other major ISPs, forwards notices of alleged infringement that we receive from music, movie, videogame, and other content owners to our customers. This is the same process we've had in place for years," says Comcast's Charlie Douglas.
"While we have always supported copyright holders in their efforts to reduce piracy under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and continue to do so, we have no plans to test a so-called 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' policy," he adds.