A July 2011 article on Wired.com reported that a deal had been struck between the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and numerous ISPs including AT&T and Comcast. The purpose was for the ISPs to pinpoint customers who were downloading copyrighted material and either redirect their browsers, cut down on their allotted bandwidth or ultimately cancel their service. While the goal of this deal is to stop people from downloading copyrighted material, it raises all kinds of red flags in terms of how the program works.
Looking Over Your Virtual Shoulder
One major problem with this new program is that the accused may be innocent of the accusations. What if someone were to hack into your wireless network and download pirated movies or child pornography through your connection? This happened in Minnesota recently where a man terrorized his neighbors and even sent threatening emails to Vice President Joe Biden through their accounts. The hacker was eventually caught and sentenced to 18 years in prison for cyberterrorism.
What about when your security software fails to detect and/or stop malware that turns the PC into a channeling device for hosting torrent data? These things could happen quite easily. Is the RIAA going to sue you because your neighbor’s kid hacked your wireless network to download the latest Pirates of the Caribbean movie? Or maybe they download pirated pornography and you get to decide if you want to fight it out, or settle as quietly as possible.
IP spoofing is another concern. This is where someone uses forged data to mask their actual IP, sort of like the way some telemarketers hide their Caller ID number or make it display some other number to trick you into answering the phone. If the ISPs start tracking connections by IP, then someone with the right know-how could employ this technique to work around the trace. Either that or they could use your IP instead, via spoofing, and then you could have your account shut down for doing absolutely nothing wrong.
There’s also the matter of commercial customers who offer free Wi-Fi to their customers. Are ISPs going to cut bandwidth and redirect browsers for people sitting in Starbucks or McDonald’s just because somebody is sitting in the parking lot with a laptop and using it todownload music illegally? Will commercial customers be held to the same standard and be forced to police their own customers? Some major cities like Houston or Seattle offer free wireless Internet connections in their downtown areas, so are those municipalities going to be held responsible for the downloading activities of their citizens?
Small Fish, Big Pond
What bothers me most about this whole thing is that it puts everything off on the customer. If the MPAA and RIAA are able to identify sources of copyrighted material online, such as torrent sites, then why not have the ISPs block those sites and their relative IP addresses? Any cop will tell you that busting drug consumers is a waste of time unless you stop their source, too. It seems like this deal is approaching online copyright infringement from the wrong direction, unless the real goal is not to stop downloaders but to launch a series of lawsuits against the accused.
Furthermore, why aren’t the search engines being held accountable in all of this? You can go to Google and search for any recent movie plus the word ‘download’ and get links to a number of torrent sites where you can download a pirated version of that movie. Some sites will even tell you the video and audio quality of the recording since the new releases will have been shot with camcorders that someone snuck into the theater. If the search engines are facilitating the ease of access to copyrighted material, why aren’t they being sued? Perhaps your ISP should start blocking Google because they are enablers.
Stopping Piracy the Wrong Way
I suspect part of this deal has to do with the inability to permanently shut down notorious torrent sites like The Pirate Bay because they come from other countries outside the United States. Numerous attempts to take the site offline only result in temporary downtime. As reported by the New York Times in June 2011, the hacker group Lulz Security used the site to issue a public statement.
Since taking down torrent sites has proved to be so difficult, the RIAA and MPAA are now going after the downloaders and they have ISPs collecting information on their paying customers to give to them. It makes me wonder if the ISP will get a kickback or reward of some kind for every customer they help bust. A piece of that lawsuit money will probably be worth more than what AT&T or Verizon could make off one customer over several years of service.
Downloading copyrighted material online is wrong, and there is no excuse for doing it. Whether it’s some Metallica album you last purchased on cassette tape in the 80’s or the latest Lady Gaga album, you should pay for these things. The same goes for movies, games and software. The PC game industry now employs all kinds of annoying sales practices that generally rip off their customers, but it’s necessary because of the amount of online file sharing that happens. In no way am I endorsing any kind of online piracy by speaking out against this deal, but I do feel like it’s the wrong way to go about stopping piracy.
Unless your ISP makes more of an effort to stop sources like file sharing torrent sites, then the problem of online piracy is not going away. Workplaces block Facebook and YouTube access for most users. Don’t tell me that ISP and search engines couldn’t also block source sites if they really wanted to stop people from using them.
Image credit: WikiMedia Commons, Kopimi