AT&T Will Kick Internet Users Offline for Piracy

But critics say losing access to an essential utility is a problematic over-reaction to copyright infringement.

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Nov 6 2018, 8:51pm

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AT&T will soon begin kicking some of the company’s broadband customers offline for piracy.

Anonymous sources familiar with AT&T’s plans told Axios that the company will soon inform around a dozen broadband customers that their internet connections will be terminated due to copyright infringement. Terminating the accounts of repeat offenders is a new policy for AT&T, and comes on the heels of the company’s $86 billion acquisition of Time Warner.

In a statement provided to Motherboard, AT&T said the company will only terminate customers’ broadband connections if they ignore the entertainment industry’s repeated efforts to “educate” them about the perils of copyright infringement.

“Based on the notices we received, we identified the customer on the account and shared with them the information we received” from copyright holders, AT&T said. “We also reached out to the customer to educate them about copyright infringement and offer assistance to help prevent the activity from continuing.”

According to AT&T, a “small number of customers” who keep receiving warnings “despite our efforts to educate them” could suddenly find themselves without an internet connection.

As part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, ISPs are required to forward warnings about copyright infringement sent to them by the entertainment industry. But since users frequently ignore these warnings and there’s no real penalty for repeat offenses, the entertainment industry has spent years trying to up the ante by making penalties far more severe.

In recent years, the entertainment industry has sued ISPs they claim haven’t done enough to thwart copyright infringement, arguing broadband providers should lose their “safe harbor” liability protections under the DMCA If they refuse to terminate repeat offenders.

Many smaller ISPs have been battling this contention in court, arguing they shouldn’t be saddled with the costs of playing copyright cops, especially since these efforts are often linked to so-called copyright trolls. But AT&T, now a larger broadcaster in the wake of its Time Warner acquisition, doesn’t appear poised to put up much of a fight on this front.

You’ll have to work hard to get on AT&T’s bad side. The efforts are primarily being aimed at users that download a significant volume of copyrighted material, and users will need to ignore at least nine warnings before AT&T will kick you offline.

Still, critics like the Electronic Frontier Foundation have long warned that terminating consumer broadband access is a severe, problematic over-reaction to copyright infringement, especially given that broadband is increasingly seen as an essential utility. Supreme Court precedent (Packingham v North Carolina) has also been interpreted by copyright experts to indicate that booting users offline for piracy is a violation of the First Amendment.

“A big problem with these private agreements is that they frequently leave Internet users without a seat at the negotiating table, and with little or no recourse when the companies involved violate users’ privacy or silence users’ online speech,” the EFF has argued.

Historically, threatening pirates hasn’t really done all that much to hamper piracy, either. Many users avoid ISP and entertainment industry tracking of this sort by simply hiding their traffic behind VPNs or proxies. And since nobody tracks pirates as they float between ISPs, there’s nothing stopping a user from switching providers (assuming users actually have the option).

AT&T’s efforts on this front are just the latest in a long line of similar efforts that have traditionally steered clear of kicking users offline completely.

Back in 2013 the broadband industry struck a deal with the entertainment industry on a controversial “six strikes” copyright alert system. Under that system, users received six, ever-escalating warnings about copyright infringement, in some cases even having their connections throttled or temporarily suspended until users acknowledged the warnings.

However, the “educational” material ISPs forwarded to consumers was arguably one-sided (ignoring concepts like fair use), and consumers had to pay a $35 fee to contest their innocence. That was a notable problem, given that accusations have traditionally been based on dubious information and the assumption of guilt based entirely on IP address.

By 2017 the program had largely ended, and the entertainment industry has been trying to force ISPs to up the ante ever since. AT&T, for its part, seems happy to oblige.