The Recording Industry Association of America, the lobbying group representing the four largest recording companies, said last month that it had enlisted the help of ISPs as part of a new antipiracy campaign. The RIAA has declined to identify which ISPs or how many.
It's important to note that none of the half dozen or so ISPs involved has signed agreements. The companies are "skittish" about negative press and could still back out, said the sources. But as it stands, AT&T and Comcast are among the companies that have indicated they wish to participate in what the RIAA calls a "graduated response program."
Typically, ISPs have stayed away from getting involved in copyright enforcement. The ISPs working with the RIAA will forward take-down notices to network users accused of illegal file sharing and in an unprecedented move, will establish a series of responses for chronic copyright violators. These responses will gradually grow in severity as the number of violations go up and may include suspension of service or even service termination. Each ISP will decide its own response.
An RIAA spokesman declined to comment, and a Comcast representative said he wouldn't confirm the company's participation. An AT&T spokesman said this: "While I'm not in a position to comment on the RIAA announcement, we believe that consumer education is a key component to enabling customers to find and use legal methods to access the content they want...we have also consistently said that automatic cutoff of our customers is not something we would do."
There are still plenty of details left to work out, the sources said. The RIAA has yet to address how it would help ISPs make up for the revenue they would lose by kicking people off their networks or who would pay the costs of sending take-down notices. The RIAA may disclose participating ISPs as soon as next month, according to a music industry source, adding that AT&T and Comcast are expected to be part of the group.
If AT&T and Comcast do join, the RIAA will have plenty of muscle to wage a new assault on piracy. The music industry said last month that it would no longer battle piracy by filing lawsuits against individuals. Instead, the big recording companies seek to create a new line of defense at the network level. And at least on paper, the plan is a potent one.
Broadband providers are the gatekeepers of Internet access and have their hands on all the controls.
News that Comcast and AT&T would likely join the fight against illegal file sharing was greeted warmly by Rick Carnes, president of the Songwriters Guild of America.
"Perhaps we have a chance to rebuild the music business after a period of tremendous looting," Carnes said. "You can't have a marketplace without property rights. Certainly (the ISPs) rolled out broadband based on movie and music downloads, legal and illegal and claimed (exemption from any legal responsibility), but at this point I think they realize being good partners with the content industry is a better idea. I really want to salute them for doing that."
The move is part of the music industry's global campaign to sway broadband providers to join in protecting copyright material.
The entertainment industry has been trying to get laws passed throughout the world that would force ISPs to implement a "three strikes" policy. Under such a policy, repeat offenders would be given three notices to stop infringing on copyright before a service provider cuts off Internet access.
Such a "three strikes" policy was implemented in France in 2007. The way it works is that ISPs issue warning messages to customers downloading files illegally. And if users ignore those messages, their accounts could be suspended or closed altogether.
Italy is considering a similar policy, according to the blog TorrentFreak. But in the U.K. a "three strikes" law appears to be losing support. The Times of London reported Monday that passage of such a law is unlikely given that ISPs there don't want the added regulation.
The newspaper reported that David Lammy, the intellectual property minister, said a law that requires ISPs to disconnect users had too many legal issues surrounding it. That said, ISPs in the U.K. have agreed to work with the movie and music industries to help stop piracy. In July last year, ISPs agreed to a memorandum of understanding with the music and film industries in which ISPs agreed to send 1,000 letters a week for three months to combat users caught sharing files illegally, The Times reported.
Here in the U.S. ISPs have been reluctant to send letters or cut off service. And so far only in a couple of isolated agreements has an ISP agreed to help content owners police and enforce copyright infringement. In 2005, Verizon struck the stealth deal to win favor with Disney management. Verizon is building out a TV network and is striking content deals with movie studios and TV networks. In exchange for forwarding notices to suspected illegal file sharers, Disney gave Verizon the rights to transmit 12 of Disney's TV channels over its broadband network.
The problem with these agreements is how to enforce them. If notices are sent automatically, there's no way to tell if a user has received it. Representative of the Electronic Frontier Foundation have reserved judgment until they hear the RIAA's plan detailed. They want to know how ISPs will protect users from being wrongly accused and whether ISPs will blackball users who have been kicked off other networks.
Another big question that EFF asks is how far will the policing efforts eventually go? Will network operators be responsible for identifying illegal content on their networks and then be asked to stop it from traversing its broadband pipes?
AT&T has previously stated that it's been testing technology that does just that. The company hasn't announced plans to use the filter technology. But the company has been working with members of the Motion Picture Association of America and the RIAA over the past year to figure out ways in which it can curb the flow of illegal content on its network.
Sources told CNET News that the RIAA hasn't asked any ISP to peer into packets or be responsible for monitoring their networks for piracy. The RIAA will continue to identify alleged copyright violators and report them to their ISPs.
By Greg Sandoval; CNET staff writer Marguerite Reardon co-authored this report.
©2009 CBS Interactive Inc. All rights reserved