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Six Strikes and You’re, Um, Well . . .

by Paul Rapp on July 13, 2011

First, the dates of this year’s Future of Music Coalition Policy Summit have been announced. It’s gonna be October 2-3 and will be held at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. Panelists and topics have not yet been revealed, but rest assured that there will be heavyweights galore from the new media and alternative music industry talking about what happens next. And there are always great parties. This is the only professional conference I attend, and I always go away inspired and informed. If you’re serious about this music thing all the kids are talkin’ about, you really should make it your business to attend. There are musician scholarships, there are volunteer opportunities, and it’s cheap to begin with (early-bird tix are $199). Info and registration at Future ofmusic.org.

Moving on. Last week, Big Media (namely the RIAA and MPAA) and the major Internet service companies (including TimeWarner, Verizon, and AT&T) announced a big new program they say is designed to “curb piracy” by Internet users. It is the kind of grandly stupid, innocuous, convoluted and ineffective initiative that could only come from months of negotiations among a bunch of $500-an-hour corporate lawyers who are profoundly out of touch with reality and common sense.

In a nutshell, it goes like this: Investigators from the media companies will continue to monitor suspected “illegal” file sharing over the Internet and will send offending Internet addresses to the ISPs. The ISPs will then contact their customers corresponding to those Internet addresses, telling the users that they’ve been observed sharing files. There are six levels of warnings that will go in sequence, with increasingly dire messages and requirements. Users “caught” file sharing will variously have to respond to the ISP via e-mail or telephone, will be forced to look at a hideously misleading copyright reeducation website, and the like. The unlucky users who reach the sixth level of doom risk being subjected to “mitigation measures,” which could include having their Internet slowed down or, at least hypothetically, shut off entirely.

There’s going to be a procedure where one can protest these warnings, some sort of arbitration deal where a user can try to show that the offending file sharing was in fact legal, and users will be charged $35 for the pleasure of doing so.

Have you ever heard of anything so ridiculous in your life? Me neither. Apparently, this is going to replace the RIAA’s and MPAA’s disastrous campaign of suing their own customers for file sharing, although there is nothing stopping them from continuing to do that. And, of course, this doesn’t impact the rash of private file-sharing suits brought by movie producers that started popping up last year. The press releases stress that the emphasis here is on education and not punishment, and the ISPs are saying that the “mitigation measures” won’t leave any customers without “essential” services like e-mail or Internet phone service.

Reaction to this from the Big Media toadies (including the Obama administration) has been predictably rapturous, like this is the coolest thing ever. Advocacy groups (like EFF, the Future of Music Coalition, and Public Knowledge) and reality-based news and commentary sites (like Ars Technica and Techdirt) have been skeptical, although some have been surprisingly lukewarm and even supportive of the program. I suppose the positive reaction stems from several factors, including: the ISP’s assurances that punishment will be an absolute last resort; that this silly program is much less onerous than most of the alternatives that have been floating out there, like France’s draconian “three-strikes” program that reportedly has people getting bounced off the net droite et gauche; and the fact that anyone getting caught downloading movies and music six times is a freakin’ moron we shouldn’t feel too sorry for in the first place.

But it is as troubling as it is absurd. It leaves customers with unprotected wireless networks and businesses offering free wi-fi vulnerable to punishment. All of these promises of “measured responses” made by all of these mega-corporations could well mean just the opposite. The “education” programs that offenders will be exposed to will consist of copyright maximalist tripe that will ignore the realities of fair use and the fact that Big Media has been digging its own grave with boneheaded policies for years now. And if this bizarre program does get off the ground, it will succeed only in driving users to file-sharing sites that are undetectable by the industry’s investigators.

In other words, the hopelessly banal game of copyright whack-a-mole keeps on rollin’.