The Recording Industry Association of America, which has spent the past five years suing tens of thousands of individual file-sharers for copyright infringement, has apparently decided to change tactics, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal (hopefully this one is a little more reliable than the recent story about Google’s views on net neutrality). The good news is that they are going to stop suing 13-year-olds and retired war veterans and single mothers for downloading music. The bad news is that their new plan involves cutting sneaky backroom deals with Internet service providers to take a so-called “three strikes” approach: They let the ISP know when they think you’ve been sharing copyrighted material, and the provider agrees to send you an email warning; the second time, you get a letter; do it again and your Internet access gets cut off.
This is not a new idea. The French government has proposed legislation that would require Internet providers to cut off subscribers for up to a year if they repeatedly engage in copyright infringement, and the British recording industry association managed to convince several major ISPs to agree to warn their users, although they have stopped short of cutting off their access altogether. While the European Parliament approved a resolution in November saying “three strikes” legislation was an unreasonable breach of the rights and freedoms of Internet users, the EU’s Council of Ministers rejected the resolution and it appears that the French law will go ahead.
Even if the RIAA or the ISPs could identify file-sharers or copyright infringers with 100 percent accuracy, the three-strikes approach would still be disturbing, since it effectively turns ISPs into an extra-judicial copyright police squad, with the power to cut off a service without any appeal. But it’s even worse than that. If there’s one thing that all the lawsuits launched by the RIAA have shown, it’s that the record industry has a pretty poor track record when it comes to actually identifying who is sharing what kinds of files and whether they are infringing or not. So now instead of lawsuits against the wrong people for the wrong reasons, Internet users will have their access summarily shut off for something they may or may not have done.
As Peter Kafka notes in a post at MediaMemo, this approach clearly serves the interests of ISPs, which are concerned about the amount of bandwidth file-sharing services consume. And it definitely serves the interests of the RIAA, since it allows them to strike out at the perceived menace of copyright infringement without having to even go to court. But it should be disturbing to anyone who thinks that individual rights and freedoms, including the right to be presumed innocent — not to mention the idea that the punishment should be proportional to the alleged crime — are worth more than the record industry’s desperate desire to cling to an antiquated business model.