Millions of small business owners may soon realize that their Internet service could be disrupted if they're wrongly accused of illegal file sharing or downloading under the "six strikes" plan entertainment media groups announced this week.
Initiated by the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), and other media groups, participating ISPs will shortly begin sending warning letters to users or companies whose accounts are allegedly used to illegally share files. ISPs will send a series of up to six notices to account holders whose IP addresses are allegedly used for the "online content theft of film, TV shows, or music" as part of the Center for Copyright Information initiative. After six notices, the ISP could begin a series of "mitigation measures"--which for all intents and purposes would likely lead to the disruption of Internet services on which most small businesses depend.
The announcement is the most important of its kind since the RIAA announced it was ending its litigation campaign in 2008 to thwart illegal file sharing. So now, instead of suing alleged digital copyright infringers, participating ISPs including AT&T, Cablevision Systems, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon will carry the stick intended to curb illegal file sharing on behalf of the media companies.
Here are four things that small businesses should be concerned about.
1. Losing Internet Access
The Center for Copyright Information does not come out and say that ISPs will suspend accounts. It also specifies that participating ISPs may even decide not to institute the "mitigation measures." However, possible steps that ISPs could take include reductions in Internet speeds and blocking access to Websites by redirecting users to a landing page.
If you or one of your office users is blatantly using an account to download movies and films, that's one thing. But what remains unclear is exactly how copyright holders will determine whether they think their copyright-protected content has been illegally accesses or shared.
During the RIAA's litigation campaign, many people were wrongly sued when hackers hijacked users' IP addresses. It is thus likely that hijacked IP addresses associated with file sharing will erroneously fall in the line of fire.
Proving that a subscriber account was not used for illegal file sharing when issued a court summons was difficult in the past. Those accused usually paid lawyers fees or damages of a few thousand dollars for those who did not contest the damages as a remedy. However, for many small businesses, a disruption in Internet access would mean nothing less than the end of their business, which is certainly more costly than paying a few thousand dollars to settle legal claims, whether they are erroneous or not.
2. Time and Expense to Respond
A small business that erroneously receives a warning letter will have to devote time and resources to contest the claim. According to the Center for Copyright Information, subscribers can pay $35 for an "independent review" if they feel they are wrongly accused. However, besides placing the future of your company's Internet access in the hands of a supposed independent review committee, what kind of evidence will those wrongly accused have to gather? A small business owner already working 80 hours a week might not be able to squeeze the extra resources required to prove a negative--which, as in criminal law, is harder than proving a positive--that an account was not used for illegal file sharing.
3. Wi-Fi Hijacking Risks
Small businesses that offer customers free Wi-Fi service can only claim that a customer and not the business owner illegally shared or accessed copyright-protected content one time. This means that your business could risk connectivity problems if customers repeatedly share or download copy-right protected content. Policing your customers to make sure they are not illegally accessing or sharing files, besides raising privacy concerns, would require extra resources that small business may not have.
4. Defending Fair Use Claims
Suppose copyright owner X informs the ISP that your business is infringing on its copyright claims, even though your legal counsel says it is not. The ISP will almost certainly not adjudicate this claim and will likely follow through with sending alerts that claim your business is stealing content. What do you do then?
Also, if your business claims that it is allowed to share or access content under fair use policies and disagrees with the copyright holder's claims, your business or name must be communicated to the copyright holder to do that, which raises privacy concerns.
What To Do?
Small businesses as well as subscribers can react by contacting their ISPs and congressional representatives to express why they think this development is a bad idea. Some participating ISPs may decide to opt out of the initiative if enough subscribers complain.
Bruce covers tech trends in the United States and Europe and can be reached through his Website at www.brucegain.com.