Update 9:30 a.m. PT To include e-mail exchanges between Qwest employees and Cathi Paradiso.
All Cathi "Cat" Paradiso knew for sure, as she learned that her Web access was being shut off, was that she was losing her struggle to stay calm.
To Paradiso, the customer-service representative from Qwest Communications on the phone with her could have been speaking Slovenian for all the sense it made. Her Internet service was suspended... Hollywood studios accused her of copyright violations... she illegally downloaded 18 films and TV shows..."Zombieland," "Harry Potter," "South Park..."
South Park? What would a 53-year-old grandmother want with "South Park" she thought to herself? But this much about what the Qwest rep said sank in: if Paradiso was accused of copyright infringement once more, her Internet service provider would have no choice but to terminate her account. Paradiso said she was also told that she would have a hard time acquiring new service as the other ISPs in the area would know her name and what she did.
"Take me off your hit list," Paradiso wrote in a January 15 e-mail plea to some of the studios who had accused her. "I have never downloaded a movie. Period... You'll need to admit you made a mistake and move on to the correct perpetrator... I am saying this once more: My computer is not a toy. My livelihood depends on my ISP's reliability. Look for the perpetrator and leave my service alone."
Paradiso, a technical recruiter who works out of her home near Pueblo, Colo., would eventually be cleared. Last week, Qwest had a technician investigate--after CNET began making inquiries--and he discovered that her network had been compromised, according to Monica Martinez, a Qwest spokeswoman. So Paradiso is off the hook, but she wants to know what would have happened had she not gone to the media. There was no independent third party to hear her complaint. There was no one to advocate for her.
If ISPs are to become copyright cops, a role that companies such as Comcast, Verizon, Cox, and others appear to be warming up to at the request of the entertainment sector, then what this case suggests is that there's a need for better safeguards to prevent people from being wrongly accused and cut off from the Web.
"This goes to show that there's a problem with due process in these kinds of situations," said Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which advocates for Internet users and technology companies. "If you're going to kick somebody off the Internet, there's a lot of procedures that need to be put in place to protect the innocent. It doesn't look like those were in place here."
An attorney who works closely with one of the studios involved and asked to remain anonymous, said these issues are being addressed. Entertainment companies and ISPs agree that there should be some kind of review process and people accused of copyright violations must also be properly informed before any service disruption takes place. One possible way is to redirect an accused customer's computer screen to a warning notice or to send warnings via certified mail.
For ISPs, protecting customers from being wrongly accused of piracy is just one of the hurdles confronting them. They have been thrust into the middle of a digital tug-of-war between people who illegally download video games, music, and films and the creators of those materials.
Entertainment companies see bandwidth providers as natural gatekeepers that can easily set up road blocks against piracy. Both the film and music industries want ISPs to adopt some version of what they call a "graduated response" program. This calls for a series of warnings to be issued to people accused of infringing intellectual property. If ignored, the warnings would eventually be followed by some kind of service interruption--suspension or termination.
The idea of booting paying customers makes some ISPs very squeamish. AT&T said last year that it would never terminate service unless it received a court order. That hasn't stopped AT&T and other ISPs from issuing more and more warning letters to customers accused of copyright violations. For example, Verizon has a long history of defying the entertainment industry's attempts to draft it into antipiracy efforts. Nonetheless, Verizon began sending letters on behalf of the film industry in April and started doing it for themajor music labels in November, according to entertainment sources.
Some ISPs are more aggressive in helping copyright owners than others. Cox Communications has said it has terminated Internet access of a tiny number of customers accused of multiple copyright violations. Qwest is apparently another ISP that takes a strong stand on protecting intellectual property.
Martinez said that any customer accused of violating copyright is notified by e-mail or letter before Qwest initiates any service interruption. The company works with customers who believe they are wrongly accused and it "routinely results in good resolutions" for all, she said. "We will work with them if there is a security issue or a mistake as much as we can," Martinez said. "What we can do is sometimes limited."
Those "limitations" may be how Paradiso nearly fell through the cracks. Qwest, however, doesn't appear to have acted hastily in Paradiso's situation.
The film industry began flagging her Internet protocol address in October. Before Qwest finally suspended her service, nearly three months had passed and 18 separate claims of copyright infringement had piled up.
Martinez declined to specify exactly what occurred in Paradiso's case, citing possible litigation. Paradiso, who said she never received any e-mails or letters from Qwest notifying her of the problem, has hired Lory Lybeck, the attorney representing Tanya Andersen, a woman wrongly accused by the music industry of illegal file sharing five years ago. Lybeck told CNET he is investigating Paradiso's case.
Do the companies that tracked file sharing back to Paradiso bear any responsibility for the mix-up? Mark Ishikawa, the CEO of BayTSP, an Internet security firm, says the answer is "no." Ishikawa notified Qwest that Paradiso's IP address was being used to download "South Park" and "Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen," both owned by Viacom.
Ishikawa said that BayTSP has systems in place that do multiple checks to ensure that the people fingered for piracy are correctly identified. He added that mistakes are very rare and those wrongly accused represent only a tiny fraction of the people flagged for illegal file sharing. But he says there isn't much anyone can do when a network is unsecured. "That's like leaving your keys in your car," Ishikawa said. "She essentially became the neighborhood's ISP."
Ishikawa raises an important question: is it right to penalize someone for not being tech-savvy enough to properly secure a wireless network?
Paradiso doesn't think so. She says she did her best to lock down her network, but she acknowledges that she's not an expert. She says there are lots of people who might have made the same mistake (Qwest is working to help her prevent any more security breaches). Paradiso, an artist who has sold several paintings, says that if one of the reasons for enlisting ISPs to help fight piracy is that it generates less public animosity than suing fans, then Hollywood loses those benefits when it falsely accuses people.
"I'm the last person that would steal somebody's art," Paradiso said. "I've never downloaded a movie or song in my life. I'm against it. After going through this, I realize this is the kind of thing that could really hurt artists. I'm so paranoid now, I won't buy music or movies online ever."
Below are recent e-mail exchanges between Qwest's employees to Paradiso. More to come.
From: Cathi [mailto:REDACTED]
Sent: Wednesday, January 27, 2010 9:37 PM
To: REDACTED, Howard
Cc: Martinez, Monica
Subject: Hey Howard
Thanks for your help. Sorry I missed your call. When you say the matter is resolved, does that mean I won't be getting any more threatening letters or does it mean my DSL is working again?
From: Howard [mailto:REDACTED@qwest.com]
Sent: Thursday, January 28, 2010 7:54 AM
Cc: Martinez, Monica
Subject: RE: Hey Howard
Well, it should be both! Since you're using only wired (Ethernet) connections for your computers the wireless light on your DSL modem should be out. Since this was the source of your problem...no more threatening letters. I like to call this a "win - win" ;-)
From: REDACTED@qwest.net [mailto:REDACTED@qwest.net]
Sent: Wednesday, January 13, 2010 10:47 AM
To: REDACTED@msn.com; Cathi Paradiso
Subject: [REDACTED] DMCA Complaints - Update
In response to your email: (Editor's note: Qwest included the next paragraph that was sent to them by Paradiso): "This is NOT my IP address or port.. I NEVER NEVER NEVER download movies. The IP address below is included in a range of IP addresses owned by a school district in Colorado Springs. It appears they are the culprit and not me. I would like this matter resolved."
(Qwest's response) Your user ID is dynamic, meaning the IP can change frequently. If there is a connection with the school that means you have an unprotected wireless system that is being used to download these items. It is still your responsibility to protect and secure your computer. This is just the first time that your user ID has been placed into the Qwest Consumer Protection Program, but our policy does allow for permanent deactivation at some point. Please seek outside help if necessary. The entire list of 18 items was also resent to your email address today.
Here is a list of IP that user (REDACTED) has been logged in for the last 30 days: (REDACTED).