ISPs Sell You Out So They Can Sell You Shows

Executives from ISPs including Comcast (s CMCSA) and AT&T (s T) today clarified their roles when it comes to interfering in fights between copyright holders and copyright infringers. There’s a lot of wrong information out there, but the facts boil down to two things: Comcast hasn’t changed its practice toward takedown notices, while AT&T has. And both say they’re not doing this solely on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America.

Comcast issued the following statement:

“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 – nothing has changed. While we have always supported copyright holders in their efforts to reduce piracy under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), and continue to do so, we have no plans to test a so-called ‘three-strikes-and-you’re-out’ policy.”

Last week, AT&T began a trial program that follows a model enacted last year in the UK where an ISP attaches a cover letter to any notice from a copyright holder claiming infringement. We didn’t like it then and we still don’t today.

AT&T reached out today to let me know that it doesn’t issue take-down notices to its subscribers, but merely forwards the notice from the copyright owner along with an AT&T cover letter. The cover letter informs the subscriber without actually accusing them of illegal activity how they might find themselves in the position of receiving such a letter, and reminds them of AT&T’s terms of service that prohibit sharing copyrighted material.

The AT&T spokesman went to great pains to stress how grateful some customers are when they’re notified that illegal file sharing could be happening under their roofs and how benign this process was. He said AT&T doesn’t share customer information with the copyright owner unless there’s a subpoena, and he didn’t know if AT&T kept records of such notices in the customer’s file.

However, if this is such a benign tool, then why are the ISPs doing this at the risk of alienating their customers? My guess is they want access to content in a way they’ve never needed before. Content owners suddenly hold the strong position at the negotiating table as the ISPs seek to deliver rights to content so it can be viewed across televisions, computers and mobile phones.

This paves the way for the music industry and content owners to get what they want. Getting the ISPs to spy on threaten their customers is very effective. The AT&T spokesman cited data from the UK that points to a 70 percent reduction in illegal downloading after customers received the first notice, and a 90 percent reduction after customers received their second notice. If the ISPs don’t want to be a dumb pipe, it looks like they’re going to have to get their hands dirty.