AT&T, Comcast and Verizon May Start Punishing File Sharers

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People who illegally download movies and music may soon face more than just empty threats from their Internet service providers.

Some of the largest ISPs in the United States are close to agreements with the entertainment industry to crack down on piracy with stiffer punishments, according to CNet. Repeat offenders could face throttled bandwidth speeds or limited access to the Internet, or they may have to attend programs to learn about the subtleties of copyright law.

CNet’s unnamed sources say the agreement between ISPs and media companies isn’t a done deal yet. But their partnership, which was encouraged in part by the White House, could be announced as early as next month. AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are all reportedly involved.

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The entertainment industry has wanted this approach to piracy for years. In 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America said it would stop suing individual file sharers and instead pursue a “graduated response,” in which Internet service providers would penalize offenders.

But the ISPs were reluctant to play ball. Some providers would send threatening letters to subscribers, but rarely would they take action. As DSL Reports notes, Cox Communications was the only major ISP that freely admitted to kicking repeat offenders off its network, and only in extreme situations after many warnings.

The rumored agreement between entertainment companies and ISPs would change all that, although it’s not quite the “three strikes” rule that we’ve seen in other countries such as France and Ireland. In the United States, ISPs will likely stop short of terminating users’ Internet connections completely.

If you’re a law-abiding citizen, there may some downsides. ISPs will reportedly share the cost of operating the program, and I’m guessing those costs will be passed on to subscribers. And as with any anti-piracy effort that relies on detecting IP addresses, there’s a risk of accusing innocent people who keep their Wi-Fi networks open, either intentionally or inadvertently.

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But if the agreement goes through, the entertainment industry will celebrate it as another blow to piracy in the United States, following the shutdown of popular file-sharing service LimeWire. Some individual rights holders have also found success strong-arming file sharers with bulk lawsuits. It’s a tough time to be a pirate, even if the craftiest of file sharers will always find a way.