One Year Later, Copyright Alert System Still Hasn't Broken The Internet

by Juan Carlos Melendez-Torres, Policy Intern

On 28 May, 2014, the Center for Copyright Information (CCI) released their report on the Copyright Alert System’s (CAS) first ten months of activity. In direct contrast to the apocalyptic visions conjured up by opponents of the system, privacy wasn’t compromised, the free web didn’t implode and the alert system essentially self-corrected. Echoing the words of our own Casey Rae in Billboard a year ago, the internet didn’t break:

“At this point, many of us are looking for a positive outcome after the contentious battle that was SOPA. For music companies, getting intermediaries like ISPs to take on some responsibilities in addressing user behavior is probably more cost effective and less brand-damaging than other enforcement tactics. For musicians, it comes down to whether the policy helps protect their rights without compromising what they find useful about the internet. With CAS, we’ll probably have to wait-and-see.”

In fact, the system seems to have had some impact on infringement without taking an overly punitive approach.  We’ve waited for over a year now to see results, and it looks as if CAS might actually be working, though success remains a matter of definition. For example, a decrease in piracy may also have a lot to do with an increase in legitimate services where convenience and attractive price points converge. On the other hand, the “educational” focus of CAS may play a role in driving users to licensed platforms.

Major media companies (and some smaller ones) have for years encouraged Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to do more to combat copyright infringement on their networks. The CAS represents the culmination of many of these efforts.

Launched in February 2013, CAS is described as a “tiered notice and response system aimed at reducing copyright infringement over peer-to-peer (P2P) networks… The first-of-its-kind collaboration, the CAS is a multi-stakeholder effort focused on approaching the issue of digital copyright infringement in a fair and consumer-friendly manner.”  The groups involved with the CCI at the time of the creation of the CAS included the five largest ISPs in the US, as well as the RIAA, MPAA, Independent Film and Television Alliance (IFTA) and the American Association of Independent Music (A2IM).

CAS is based in a system of six (or so) warnings—also known as “graduated response”—which cycle through an “educational stage” to “acknowledgement” and finally to “mitigation.” Content owners and distributors collaborate with ISPs to identify the IP addresses that are sharing copyrighted works over P2P networks. From there, ISPs (while not disclosing personally identifiable information of account holders to content owners) send an alert to the user, letting them know that infringing activity was detected.

The first and second warnings provide the account holders with educational information about how to access licensed content and how to secure their networks against possible unauthorized access. The third and fourth warnings require acknowledge of receipt, but require no admission of wrongdoing. The third stage, “mitigation,” includes information from the first two stages, but can also result in reduced internet speeds and “redirection to a landing page” until the alerts are acknowledged and a certain amount of time has passed. To learn more about how the notices are generated, read the full report here

In its first ten months, CAS sent more than 1.3 million Copyright Alerts, of which more than 70 percent occurred at the education stages. Of these, only 47 alerts were successfully challenged. (The vast majority were cases of unauthorized use of the network.) In all, the report does seem to demonstrate that CAS has very few—if any—false positives, and that most infringers cease unlawful activity during the education phase.

The release of the report highlights a few core lessons that align closely with our own ideals:

  1. Consensus-based solutions are preferred. When we have different stakeholders working together—from Big Content to smaller operators to the public interest and privacy communities—we get better results.
      
  2. When a system is built with safeguards, it prevents draconian abuses and allows for course corrections. The CAS was designed with the participation of notable privacy advocates. All parties (except for outroght naysayers) had their say in the design. Even privacy advocates should be satisfied with the results so far (though vigilance is always a good idea).
      
  3. Defeatism is the worst obstacle on the path towards practical solutions. We still have our work cut out for us in balancing the interests of users, individual creators, technology companies and media corporations. Still, pragmatism dictates that we have to start somewhere. The CAS can be seen as one example.

It is important, however, that we continue to keep an eye on the developments, particularly as the system scales up. The CCI has stated its intention to expand the program’s reach over the coming year. What remains to be seen is whether existing checks and balances (particularly challenges to notifications and anonymization) will continue to be as effective as they were in the pilot stages.

We’ll be on top of it.

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