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RIAA Enlists ISPs To Fight Piracy

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) announced yesterday it will shift the focus of its anti-piracy efforts, particularly against P2P users, by using ISPs to deter illegal file-sharing, instead of relying on costly, PR killing lawsuits against individuals. The idea is that the RIAA would notify a local ISP if one of its users, identified by IP address, is thought to be illegally sharing music, movies or other copyrighted material.

The ISP would then send a desist warning with the added threat that internet access for that user may subsequently be permanently revoked. Unsurprisingly perhaps, the new strategy already has netizens worried about civil liberties, censorship and potential blacklisting (cf. also this great summary of the situation over at Public Knowledge).

The tactic is not exactly new. It has been used before on college campuses, long the front line in the battle over digital piracy. Individual users who were repeatedly caught hogging bandwidth with filesharing were banned from university network access for a period of time, sometimes up to a year or longer.

What concerns me is how powerful this collaboration between the RIAA and ISP companies could turn out to be. Will there be any process for appeal if internet service is terminated? If access to, say, Comcast has been revoked for copyright infringement, will it be possible to seek service elsewhere? In an increasingly consolidated media environment, the possibility of blacklisting across ISPs seems quite real, despite the protestations of RIAA president Cary Sherman.

Moreover, for a world in which the internet is becoming increasingly central to everyday functioning, communication and civic participation, categorically banning access equals quasi-pariah status. Nor will this loss of privileges be weighed by a judge in a court of law where minimum due process is required; rather, the RIAA, long eager to twist the arms of ISPs protected by the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, will call the shots.

Will it deter music piracy? Quite possibly. But is there also potential for abuse and arbitrary denial of service? Absolutely. It doesn’t seem too far to count out systemic internet filtering either. The RIAA will no doubt make the same argument already voiced over child pornography. If it’s illegal material, then networks have a responsibility to filter it. Anything else you’d like censored or controlled? Jihadist websites? Unsavory but legal erotica?

The internet is too powerful and democritizing a means for free expression to be leashed by either governments or powerful companies. This is the hard lesson of Burma and China where not just child porn and stolen records are illegal; political dissent is too.

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