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MPAA to broadband providers: Pull the plug on pirates

Internet providers should identify customers running afoul of copyright law out of their own self-interest, the Motion Picture Association of America suggests.

Jim Williams, the MPAA's chief technology officer and senior vice president, says broadband providers need to filter out pirated material. Declan McCullagh/

HOLLYWOOD, Calif.--The Motion Picture Association of America is calling on broadband providers to pull the plug on copyright-infringing users.

Jim Williams, the MPAA's chief technology officer and senior vice president, said on Thursday that it's in the best interests of Internet providers to sift through data traveling across their networks and interrupt transmissions that violate copyright law.

"Much of the Internet is being clogged up with stolen goods," Williams said at a technology policy conference here. "Basically you have a bunch of free riders who are hogging the bandwidth (and taking) it away from legitimate consumers."

For years, of course, copyright holders have been pressing Internet providers to block access to offshore piracy havens or inspect the traffic to block transfers that are unlawful. As long ago as 2001, the major record labels called on Internet providers to block access to Napster clones, and a number of U.S. senators followed suit two years later.

"I believe they will find the incentive to make their networks more efficient for all of their paying customers. If they can reduce some of the infringing content, then there will be more capacity for their paying customers."
--Jim Williams, MPAA CTO and senior VP

So far, nothing much has changed for broadband users. But as the amount of pirated material has continued to balloon, as Congress has grown more concerned, and as filtering technology has become more sophisticated, the MPAA's call to arms stands a better chance of succeeding. So might worries about the terrific amount of bandwidth that protocols like BitTorrent consume--which led to Comcast saying Thursday it would find new ways to limit traffic on its network by the end of the year.

"I believe they will find the incentive to make their networks more efficient for all of their paying customers," Williams said. "If they can reduce some of the infringing content, then there will be more capacity for their paying customers."

Another milestone in the copyright lobby's push for filtering came in January, when AT&T said it was voluntarily experimenting with copyright-filtering technologies and was working with the MPAA and the Recording Industry Association of America. AT&T said it was testing a range of filtering technologies including from Vobile, a start-up in which AT&T has invested.

There's a big difference, of course, between copyright filtering that's done voluntarily by broadband providers and filtering done because it's mandated by law. The MPAA made it clear on Thursday that it's not calling for new legislation--"we don't need additional laws"--at least right now. The RIAA has said the same thing, recently too.

On one hand, that reticence could simply be a sign of political pragmatism on the part of the MPAA and RIAA: they'd likely be outgunned on Capitol Hill by the hundreds of lobbyists that broadband providers could (and would) dispatch to shoot down any such proposal.

But on the other hand, major copyright holders are mounting an international push for filtering. Canada's copyright lobby has pushed for legally-mandated filtering. A Belgian court has said that Internet service providers can be forced to block copyrighted material, a ruling that copyright holders applauded. A European Union committee has rejected the idea, at least temporarily. U2's manager loves filtering.

And some U.S. politicians have shown interest in laws requiring filtering--a recent bill in the Tennessee legislature would make it mandatory for state universities. Rep. Mary Bono, a copyright-friendly Republican, likes filtering too, but stopped short of saying it should be mandatory.

If AT&T begins to voluntarily filter copyrighted content on a widescale basis, that could weaken any argument from other broadband providers saying that such a move is technologically infeasible, too expensive, or overly intrusive. Filtering of child pornography is another possible opening.

When contacted with complaints by the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, Verizon routinely deletes from its servers material posted by customers that it reviews and concludes will violate child pornography laws. If Verizon already polices its users for child pornography reasons, the MPAA argues, it should be able to do the same for copyrighted material too.

Verizon strongly disagrees. Richard Lynch, Verizon's executive vice president and chief technology officer, said here on Thursday:

Our philosophy, a well-considered philosophy I might add, is that we are not the enforcers of the Internet. Our job is to deliver the bitstreams that our customers either ask for or send. We feel pretty strong about that...Can I even realistically assume that I could do those kinds of things? I'm not sure I could if I wanted to, but I don't think that's our job.

It's worth noting, by the way, that Verizon has a long history of taking a strong position on behalf of its customers interests--it did this in the RIAA subpoena case over the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, and was validated when a federal appeals court agreed.

If the MPAA can find other network providers to take it up on its suggestion, there are still a large number of unanswered questions--including ones about customers' privacy and how filtering will work in practice. Will piratical transfers be automatically interrupted? Or just slowed? Will MPAA and RIAA lawyers be automatically alerted? How to detect whether content is licensed, or protected by fair use rights, which vary based on the details of every situation?

MovieLabs did conduct tests last year of about a dozen "digital fingerprinting" technologies from companies such as Gracenote, Vobile, and Audible Magic. Certain products worked well in some environments, like on user-generated Web sites and on university networks, MovieLabs' chief executive told in January. But that's not the same as saying it'll work well for tens of millions of Comcast and Verizon subscribers.