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WiFi, piracy, and the future of internet availability


Do you remember SOPA and PIPA? What about trying to look something up on Wikipedia and finding the site blacked out, with a message scrolling across the banner about a future without free information?

Last year, our legislators tried to regulate web access to copyrighted material with the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), all on the behalf of the entertainment industry.

Immediate and fierce public outcry and protest on the internet forced Congress to postpone voting on both bills. Google said that it collected over 4.5 million signatures in a petition drive against the bills in one day, and demonstrations against them were organized in New York City, San Francisco and Seattle.

Thousands of websites, Wikipedia among them, participated in a service blackout to raise awareness of the draconian legislation, which would hand the reins of the internet over to media companies to decide what constituted piracy and copyright infringement.

Congress may have learned its lesson about not messing with free speech on the internet, but has the entertainment industry, led by the Recording Industry Association of America?

Not hardly. Back in July of 2012, several of the largest internet service providers—Verizon, Comcast, Cablevision, Time Warner and AT&T—announced that they were working with the RIAA to develop a “six-strike program” to stop online piracy. That program went live early this year.

It’s known as the “Copyright Alerts System,” and it isn’t legislation. Rather, it’s designed to allow ISPs to punish (or “mitigate,” as they put it) users who “steal” copyrighted material using web access provided by those ISPs.

Using a program that tracks access to certain file-sharing sites and downloads of newly-released music and movies, the CAS monitors internet usage of consumers.

If a customer of Verizon or AT&T is thought to be pirating copyrighted material, the CAS will send that user’s IP address to the ISP, who is then supposed to alert whoever pays the internet bill that copyright infringement is against the law.

Each of the five ISPs participating in the CAS will have their own set of strikes to dish out to customers violating copyright law, but haven’t officially unveiled them.

Thanks to the torrenting and copyright news site TorrentFreak, Verizon and AT&T’s plans have been leaked early.

Both providers escalate from issuing email and voicemail warnings with the first two strikes, forcing users to view “educational material” about infringement before they can surf with the third and fourth, to finally limiting access to the web with the fifth and sixth strikes.

According to the International Federation of the Phonographic Industry’s Digital Music Report for 2013, the global music industry experienced a 0.3 percent bump in recorded revenue last year, the first since 1999. Over the past decade, file-sharing and MP3s and the internet completely demolished the music industry’s business model. The IFPI contends that a major obstacle to the music industry’s continued recovery is “competition from unlicensed music services,” or file-sharing.

The CAS isn’t a very efficient solution to that problem, though. The method the program uses to monitor file-sharing between users—tracking IP addresses—is unreliable at best, because IP addresses are easy to fake.

And what happens if someone uses the free Wi-Fi at a coffee shop to download copyrighted material? What about students at college, who use a huge amount of bandwidth downloading music and movies over university-provided internet?

Will free Wi-Fi disappear because businesses don’t want to be hit with penalties for copyright infringement that they aren’t even committing?

The CAS raises more questions about the future of internet availability than it offers answers to the problem of piracy.

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