Should you be worried about the new “six strikes” anti-piracy rules? Yes and no

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A new system designed to combat copyright infringement was launched in the U.S. on Monday, a joint venture between content companies and internet service providers known as the Copyright Alert System. The name sounds harmless enough, and its supporters argue that it is an appropriate balance between copyright and an open internet — but critics argue that the so-called “six strikes” process is the thin edge of an increasingly broad wedge that copyright holders are trying to drive between consumers and digital content.

The new rules, which have been in the works for over a year and have been repeatedly delayed, are being administered by the Center For Copyright Information — a non-profit entity made up of theoretically independent representatives from agencies like the Internet Education Foundation and the Future of Privacy Forum, and includes Jerry Berman, a former director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, as well as Gigi Sohn of Public Knowledge. They have partnered with five of the largest ISPs, including Verizon and Comcast.

Part of what makes this new strategy difficult to understand is that each service provider’s method for implementing the rules is different. Verizon says that after several warnings via email and popup message, users who are downloading or sharing copyrighted content will be given several options, including a temporary reduction in their internet speed. AT&T’s policy apparently says that after several warnings a user’s ability to access popular websites will be blocked until they complete a course in understanding piracy and copyright infringement.

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So should you be afraid of these new rules? That depends. Are you are only worried about how they might affect you directly, or are you concerned about the ways in which private corporations are seeking to snoop on and limit your behavior? Let’s break these two viewpoints down:

Why you shouldn’t be worried:

It doesn’t affect all internet service providers: Although providers like Comcast and Verizon are huge, they don’t cover all internet users in the United States, so it’s possible that you might not even be affected by the new restrictions even if you do download a lot of copyrighted content.

You get six strikes, which is probably more than you need: Copyright owners and the Center for Copyright Information say that the intent of these new rules is to go after the most egregious downloaders and sharers of content, not the person who occasionally downloads a new song or a movie. So if you don’t do a lot of peer-to-peer file-sharing, you probably won’t be affected.

You won’t get cut off, just lectured and irritated: Even if you do get flagged for something, the worst that most of the ISPs say they will do is limit your download speeds, show you popup warnings or send annoying emails. And some have said even if you ignore them, nothing will happen (although they could always change their minds about that later).

There are lots of ways around these restrictions: One of the criticisms of such rules isn’t that they are too invasive, but that they don’t work against the really hard-core file-sharers that are allegedly the target of this strategy — since virtual private networks, proxy addresses, cloaking software and other tools can make it almost impossible to detect infringing downloads.

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Why you should be worried:

Your ISP is going to be doing some heavy snooping: One of the broader risks that groups like the EFF point to in their criticism of these new restrictions is that they rely on ISPs snooping on their users to an almost unprecedented degree — and this raises the same issues about privacy that debates around technology like “deep packet inspection” have. The potential downside is fairly significant.

The new rules don’t take into account fair use: Much of the material produced by the Center for Copyright Information makes it sound as though anyone downloading or sharing any copyrighted content is breaking the law — but that’s not the case at all. There are many instances in which the principle of fair use applies, and these rules don’t take that into account.

Copyright holders are unlikely to stop here: One fear about the six-strikes process is that it is just the latest move in an ongoing attempt by copyright holders and content companies to exert more and more control over what users can do, and that allowing it to proceed only encourages them to pursue even harsher measures such as SOPA and PIPA.

This puts commercial entities in place of laws: One of the biggest criticisms from free speech and open-web advocates is that the six-strikes rules essentially allow private corporations — movie studios, music labels and large telecom providers — to set up a quasi-legal process for pursuing their copyright claims, when the legal system is the appropriate place for those arguments.

The bottom line: There’s reason for concern

In the end, while this move may not affect you directly — or may only be a minor irritation in your daily life — the fact remains that it marks another attempt by content owners to exert their influence in areas that should belong to the courts and should in principle be protected by things like the First Amendment and the principle of fair use, neither of which are even mentioned by the promoters of this process.

Not only that, but as my colleague Jeff Roberts notes, focusing on these kinds of efforts feels a lot like what the music industry did while it was trying hard not to innovate as the web grew bigger and bigger. The risk for copyright owners is that they rely too much on these kinds of measures, instead of working to create a market and a digital ecosystem that fosters the creation, sale and distribution of content in a way that works with the web instead of against it.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Cienpies and Flickr user Pew Center

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