The beginning of this week saw the implementation of the new Copyright Alert System (CAS), the latest attempt by the music and movie industries to curtail internet piracy.
The system will aim to identify those internet users who are participating in illegal fine distribution. The system will feature “six strikes” that will escalate from warnings to bandwidth throttling to even temporary internet shut off. The largest internet service providers in the US, including Verizon, Comcast and AT&T, are expected to begin implementing this new system this week.
Naturally, this new Copyright Alert System has reignited the rarely cold coals of the seemingly endless and fruitless struggle against media piracy and copyright violation being waged by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Record Industry Association of America (RIAA). As several officials have admitted, this new Copyright Alert System is not aimed at the worst offenders – who can easily mask their internet identity, sidestepping the new system entirely – but rather small time downloads. Believe you’ve been acted against wrongly? You can file a $35 review fee which may be refunded to you only if your appeal is approved. Fair or not, the system clearly aims to make examples out of internet customers and to intimidate them into curtailing their illicit habits. (Here is a great little overview of the various options one could take to avoid CAS and its consequences.)
My question is: Will CAS apply to the FBI and RIAA in the same way it will to the rest of the country? In 2011 TorrentFreak revealed that individuals at Sony, Universal, Fox, the RIAA and the Department of Homeland Security had participated in the downloading of music, movies, and software illegally via bittorrent at their offices, equivalent to dozens of millions of dollars in pirated media. Earlier this month the FBI, the world’s foremost anti-piracy government agency, was also revealed to have in-house pirates. So will these agencies be the subject of bandwidth throttling and other punitive measures by their ISPs? Somehow I wonder whether or not those who promote a policy of “doing what we say, not as we do” will get treated differently.
It’s a great example of corporate interests waging a losing war against social and cultural trends and a shifting morality. Despite the many impassioned arguments against the immorality of piracy, major studies suggest that nearly half of all Americans (and over two thirds of adults under 30) have participated in media piracy in some form, and that as many or more do not disapprove of family and friends doing so. And clearly those working against internet piracy are not entirely convinced of the supposed destructiveness of piracy.
Maybe the question should not be “what can we do to stop piracy” or whether or not it is morally tolerable – but ask what prompts such widespread majority participation and support of internet piracy. In the United States the percentage of earnings going toward utility bill and rent each month for many middle to lower income households continue to climb steadily, while the costs of music, movies, and video games have only increased for the consumer despite decreased manufacture costs – this while wages have not increased to keep pace and hours are cut.
Studies show that people aren’t just pirating but that they also buy legally. Though the traditional wisdom has been that piracy always equates to lost sales, there are those suggesting that this is likely not true; if anything piracy may actually boost retail sales. Speaking from personal experience, I believe it might also be reasonable to say that, given a livable wage which doesn’t go almost entirely to the necessities of bills, rent, debt and food, piracy might decline drastically. Lowering, instead of continually increasing, the costs of entertainment media would also go a long way.
Regardless of your moral stance on creative rights and internet piracy, the general consensus is that not only is it acceptable but that short of draconian internet restrictions a la China, it won’t be going away. And perhaps this is what is most alarming – rather than realizing this and seeking pragmatic solutions, the powers that be choose to escalate censorship and privacy-violating measures. As much as Americans disdain the authoritarian Chinese economic and government model, there sure seems to many who are eager to press the nation into emulating them.