Will the “Six Strikes” Copyright Alert System Hurt Consumers And Small Businesses?

    March 4, 2013

Piracy is a problem that needs to be dealt with. I don’t think anybody is going to refute that. Where people are divided is how we actually deal with this problem. After years of reputation destroying legal battles against dead people and little girls, copyright owners think they have an answer.

On Monday, the Copyright Alert System, or “Six Strikes”, went into affect across the five biggest ISPs in the U.S. The system hopes to catch those pirating content over P2P networks, and send them a notice detailing their infringement. The hope is that those who are caught will start using legal alternatives.

Do you think the Copyright Alert System will work? Will people truly stop pirating content after receiving an alert? Let us know in the comments.

To better understand the CAS, we have to look at what the Center for Copyright Information is doing with it. First, there are three tiers to the CAS that consumers should be aware of with each tier having two levels within it. The three tiers are as follows – educational alerts, acknowledgement alerts and mitigation measures.

The first two warnings – “educational alerts” – tell consumers they’ve been caught. The email will then direct them to legitimate sources of content with the hopes that the early warnings are enough to scare people into buying content.

The next two warnings step it up a notch with what’s called “acknowledgement alerts.” The first two alerts were simply emails, but these next two will actually hijack your browser. You will be hit with a message telling you that you’ve been caught yet again, and must acknowledge that you’ve been caught before you can start browsing.

The next two tiers, and presumably every alert afterwards, will be “mitigation measures.” In essence, the ISPs will begin throttling your bandwidth or blocking Web sites you frequently visit. The ISPs will not be able to cut off your Internet connection under the plan.

For a visual explanation, here’s the CCI’s soothing jazz version:

The actual specifics of these tiers will be different across the five ISPs participating in the CAS. We don’t know what every alert will look like, but Ars Technica did manage to get a hold of what Comcast’s alerts would look like.

As you would expect, the CAS hasn’t exactly garnered many fans. New Jersey Gubernatorial candidate Carl Bergmanson recently spoke out against it by saying ISPs have no right to monitor what you download:

“The internet has become an essential part of living in the 21st century, it uses public infrastructure and it is time we treat it as a public utility. The electric company has no say over what you power with their service, the ISPs have no right to decide what you can and can not download”.

The EFF has also come out swinging against CAS. The group says the system presents a number of troubling statements that don’t just hurt Internet users but the Internet for itself. For instance, the group points out that the CCI Web site tells people to lock down their Wi-Fi connections so others don’t pirate on your connection. The EFF sees this as an attack on the open Wi-Fi movement and it would be especially troublesome for those who do share their Internet connections with others, like small businesses.

Small businesses are where we run into the biggest problems. The CCI says that rights holders won’t target open Wi-Fi networks run by businesses. Your local Starbucks or Panera Bread are safe as they run off of a business network. The problem comes in the form of small businesses like a local coffee shop or bakery that runs free Wi-Fi off of a residential network. These businesses will be held liable for the actions of its consumers.

The CCI argues that it won’t hurt small businesses running residential networks because the CAS will never terminate an Internet connection. That’s entirely true, and it’s good that copyright owners didn’t go as far to request that ISPs terminate connections. The problem, however, lies in the fact that the fifth warning and afterwards will either block popular Web sites or throttle connections. For a small business that has multiple customers all on the same network, that’s just as good as shutting off the connection. People who want to use the Internet at these places will find it too much of a pain and take their business elsewhere.

Do you think the CAS will hurt small businesses? Or do you think the EFF and other groups are just exaggerating? Let us know in the comments.

This all brings us to the question of whether or not the CAS will even stop piracy. That’s obviously the goal, but it doesn’t look like an attainable one at the moment. In fact, the CAS is its own biggest enemy in the war on piracy.

The alerts obtained from Comcast all have one troubling thing in common. They don’t list any of the alternative, legal sources for content. The main point of the program is to educate consumers on legal alternatives, and it can’t even do that. Consumers receiving the alert with no prior knowledge of the system will most likely see it as a scam email and won’t act upon it. Later tiers require consumers to watch an educational video on copyright, but it doesn’t say whether these videos will present legal alternatives.

Fortunately, legal alternatives are doing a good enough job stopping piracy themselves. A recent report from the NPD found that legal alternatives like Spotify were driving music piracy down. It proves once again that easy access at a fair price can beat out piracy any day. Heck, the proliferation of streaming services even gave the music industry its first raise in revenue since 1999.

So why do copyright owners think the CAS will work? Do they really expect piracy rates to magically drop once the alerts start flying out? Past examples would suggest that no such thing would happen. In fact, previous efforts on the part of copyright owners to curtail piracy have had the opposite effect. Just look at the shutdown of Megaupload or the blocking of The Pirate Bay in the UK. Both cases actually saw an increase in piracy.

At this point, it’s still too early to tell how much the CAS will actually accomplish. At best, copyright owners will be able to proclaim that piracy rates are down as more people either use VPNs or move off of P2P and onto Usenet or Mega. At worst, consumers revolt and ISPs drop it after seeing that it’s costing them customers. Either way, piracy isn’t going anywhere.

Do you think piracy will ever stop being a problem? Or is it just a fact of life in the Internet age? Let us know in the comments.