How Internet service as we know it may change forever

Posted by:  Joseph Duerst

The Internet has created a platform for individuals to exercise their right of free speech, and over the years, Internet users have responded in droves, uploading and downloading user-generated (and sometimes not user-generated) content that is shared and spread like wildfires.  This community of free distribution of information and content has created the market for multi-billion dollar distractions such as Facebook and YouTube, platforms that provide the framework, while the users provide the content.

However, this has created nightmares for copyright holders, such as the Motion Pictures Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), two of the most influential and pervasive copyright holders in the world, who view this free-sharing of content, not as a rightful use in a new community of interconnectivity, but as fast spreading virus of illegal activity that threatens to destroy the businesses of movies and music.  The problem is that the Internet, which began and stayed largely unregulated, has allowed the public to do things they never could have done on a mass scale before.  Now a user uploaded video has the potential of reaching millions if not billions of people worldwide, whereas this was impossible prior to the Internet.  Such was the point of the Internet, but few were prepared for the consequences of giving the public a free and open platform to share content, the result of which has enabled users to do what many could have expected: share content with each other they normally would have had to pay for.  Why pay for it when you can download it from a friend for free?  Even worse for the MPAA and the RIAA, you don’t even have to know the person you’re downloading it from!

The MPAA and RIAA obviously would like to prevent the illegal downloading of their content, which they see as a major reason for a downturn in profits, but how does one go about stopping a user from uploading or downloading copyrighted content, in a community that promotes the free sharing of ideas?  Many tactics have been employed, mostly unsuccessful attempts to frighten Americans into complying with the law, such as the RIAA’s multiple lawsuits against individual downloaders widely reported in the media.  However, the amount of downloading of copyrighted works has not decreased, and may have actually increased as new technology, such as the iPod, have increased the value of digital file copies of movies, songs and books.  Thus, the MPAA and the RIAA, are attempting to stop the problem at the chokepoint, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs).

Internet Service Providers, such as Comcast, face great costs and difficulties in maintaining the framework that allows for massive Internet traffic.  Bandwidth is limited, and they have a great incentive to reduce it.  The RIAA and the MPAA have been working on ISPs over the years, to persuade them to choke off the bandwidth to users that have a high volume of traffic in files, because peer-to-peer and bit torrent downloading and uploading use a lot of bandwidth.  Anyone that is using a lot of bandwidth must be downloading illegally… right?  They have at least convinced some ISPs, who probably do not care either way, because they can justify cutting off the bandwidth to users by explaining their great difficulty in supporting the demand.  Thus, practices that use a lot of bandwidth will result in users being cutoff for a period of time as a penalty for the burden they have placed on their ISPs.

But that’s not enough in the eyes of the RIAA, which is pushing for the United States to adopt a more stringent standard, as adopted in France:  a three strikes policy that will effectively leave more active Internet downloaders without Internet service.  Content providers notify ISPs of suspicious activity by an IP address and the ISP sends a warning to the user.  After three warnings, the user is banned from the Internet Service.  Whether this action results in a blacklist of all other ISPs is unclear, but one can infer a high likelihood of denial by other ISPs of a frequent violator.  Criminal penalties are also in the works for frequent illegal downloaders.  The question remains, how do they know which downloads are infringing and which are not?  The RIAA wants spyware software placed on everyone’s computer in order to answer this question, but the truth is, they do not know for sure what is being downloaded.  However, ISPs do not need proof of copyright infringement to justify cutting bandwidth of active users, because the cut is nondiscriminatory bandwidth capping.  This means that legal users, such as an indie film producer who offers his own content on peer-to-peer networks as part of his business or downloads his friends’ content, will be precluded from doing so if his usage exceeds the cap.  In the future, he may even be cut off from Internet access altogether.

Don’t we retain some right of access to the Internet, an invaluable tool that is supplanting most forms of communication?  Many can argue that today those with Internet access have a great competitive advantage over those without.  Congress has refused to address this problem (likely because it could create a political uproar), but President Obama is currently working on an international treaty that may include this new three strikes requirement for ISPs, effectively taking Congressional action out of the picture.

What does all this mean for we American Internet users?  It means that the days of unrestricted access and use of the Internet may be coming to an end, and the culture of free sharing of content that has been prevalent since the genesis of the Internet may be a faint memory we will share with our grandchildren.  They’ll stare in disbelief as we explain how music and films were available for free from others and they’ll ponder, “What is a CD?”  Or maybe, Americans will stand up for their freedom and demand that their toy the Internet remain unrestricted.  Maybe the film and music industries will find alternate models of profit making.  But likely, there will come a time when the fun is over, and many Americans once again will be forced to purchase the content they so enjoy.


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