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3 unintended effects of the Copyright Alerts System

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Years in the making, the Copyright Alerts System (CAS) is intended to reduce the number of casual pirates in the U.S. The program will essentially slow the Internet connections for those who are thought to upload copyrighted material and force repeat offenders to complete "educational" courses to stay online.

When the program begins—sometime in "early 2013" —you can safely assume it will bring some unintended consequences as well.

The CAS has been rife with setbacks. It's been delayed multiple times, slowed down by infighting between content companies and Internet service providers (ISPs), and forced to hire a new consultant after the scandal broke that its first one had a substantial conflict of interest.

In theory, the process will curb what the lobbying organizations that represent the film and music industries—the Motion Picture and (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA)—see as a culture of casual piracy, which they claim hurts their sales. When people upload copyrighted content to a specific address, like a file-locker site, content companies can send a takedown notice under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act (DMCA) to get quick results.

But it's harder for them to track people who use peer-to-peer downloading services, including BitTorrent, the industry standard. The CAS will track users who upload major releases by their unique Internet protocol (IP) address, then send them a series of escalating "educational" directives if they're caught again and again.

According to a leaked version of Verizon's plans (AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, and Time Warner are expected to adopt a similar model), the first two times a customer is believed to be uploading copyrighted content, it's a simple notice: an email and an automatic voicemail to whoever pays the bill on that account. The third and fourth times are a little more invasive: Users are redirected to a splash page where they must acknowledge that they've read some educational material on piracy. Any more strikes, and their Internet speeds will slow to a crawl for two to three days.

But even if the CAS is successful in deterring Internet users from pirating at home, it could have unintended side effects that hurt Internet users and backfire on content companies.

What follows is based on recent information from CAS Executive Directive Jill Lesser and her media relations representative, Caroline Langdale. It's entirely possible that when the CAS finally launches, something else will have changed.

1) Your local cafe becomes a hotbed of piracy.

Contrary to some reports, your local coffee shop shouldn't actually see the same reduced Internet speeds that residential customers face under the CAS. Since anyone can sit at a cafe and start pirating, it wouldn't be long before somebody triggers the CAS, slowing everybody's connection speed to a crawl. Langdale told the Daily Dot,

"Small businesses like cafés should obtain Internet service that includes the offering of public wifi as part of their terms of services. Services that include this in their terms of service will not be a part of CAS."

So if casual pirates don't want to risk getting caught at home, what can they do? If you want to pirate, and you don't want to learn about encryption, the solution might be easy: Head somewhere where you won't take the blame. Places like cafés and bars with open WiiFi might become the new havens for pirates.

2) Legions of new users educate themselves about how to avoid detection.

According to comments Lesser made at an Internet Society meeting in November 2012, the definition of who the CAS is after is extremely narrow, at least for its planned first iteration. It only tracks those who upload the most-popular copyrighted content, like blockbuster movies and best-selling albums, via the peer-to-peer service BitTorrent, and it only identifies them by their Internet protocol (IP) addresses. That's it. So pirates who can avoid BitTorrent, or peer-to-peer altogether, or download without uploading (a major faux pas on some torrent sites), or hide their IP addresses, will avoid detection.

Learning to conceal one’s IP address is already a major point of Internet activism, for reasons that have nothing to do with piracy. The Electronic Frontier Foundation, for instance, suggests bloggers in dangerous parts of the world hide their IP addresses to ensure their anonymity from authoritarian governments.

3) Devastation to the Open Wireless Movement.

A growing trend, the Open Wireless Movement, encourages anyone with the means to do so to open their home Wi-Fi connection to passersby. The idea is to make the world a more consistently plugged-in place by sharing resources. "To me, it's basic politeness," activist and computer security expert Bruce Schneier has written. "Providing Internet access to guests is kind of like providing heat and electricity, or a hot cup of tea."

But that's actually against the terms of service for anyone who has a home/business account with one of the five major ISPs participating in the CAS. The legal issues surrounding what happens when you commit crimes on a neighbor's Wi-Fi are tricky, though some U.S. courts have found that the owner of an account isn't actually liable for others' actions.

However, if and when someone uses their neighbor's Wi-Fi for piracy and gets caught, they'll have implicated their neighbor. And because the CAS only tracks IP addresses, not individual computers on a network, that neighbor will have to go through the CAS system of acknowledging the definition of piracy and living with reduced Internet speeds.

Considering the potential side effects, is the CAS worth it, for anyone? It’s too early to predict how effective it'll be at reducing piracy, but we can already draw some parallels to previous anti-piracy measures.  

The French government uses a similar, but far stricter system, called HADOPI. It's a government program—unlike the CAS—which means it affects every French ISP, where users only get three strikes and multiple offenders can be cut off from the Internet entirely. HADOPI has indeed reduced piracy in France, though that hasn't come with the rise in music sales record companies might have expected.

On the other hand, studies have shown that MPAA and RIAA efforts to cut piracy on file-locker systems—like the notorious Megaupload, which was shut down a year ago by U.S authorities—have been utterly futile. The CAS may not fare much better.