AT&T first to test RIAA antipiracy plan

CNET News has learned that the ISP is sending letters to accused file sharers, but the company says it is not threatening to cut off service.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
4 min read

Updated Wednesday at 9:00 a.m. PDT to include quotes from AT&T and information about Comcast and Cox.

Updated Wednesday at 10:37 a.m. PDT to include a statement from an AT&T spokeswoman who wished to correct what she had previously said. She says now that the company asserts in the letters that it has the right to terminate a policy. She said, however, the company has no intention of doing so.

Updated Wednesday at 3:40 p.m. PDT: AT&T says that it won't ever terminate service of customers without a court order. To read more updated information about this, go here.

AT&T, one of the nation's largest Internet service providers, confirmed on Tuesday the company is working with the recording industry to combat illegal file sharing.

At a digital music conference in Nashville, Tenn., Jim Cicconi, a senior executive for AT&T, told the audience that the ISP has begun issuing warning notices to people accused of pirating music by the Recording Industry Association of America, according to one music industry insider who was present.

Early Wednesday morning, an AT&T spokeswoman confirmed that Cicconi made the statements.

In December, the RIAA, the lobbying group of the four largest recording companies, announced the group would no longer pursue an antipiracy strategy that focused on suing individuals, but rather would seek the help of broadband providers to stem the flow of pirated content. The RIAA said an undisclosed number of ISPs had agreed to cooperate but declined to name them. In January, CNET News reported that AT&T and Comcast were among the group.

Sources told CNET on Wednesday that a Comcast executive confirmed that the nation's second largest ISP is working with the RIAA. At the same Nashville conference where Cicconi spoke, the Comcast exec said the ISP has sent 2 million warning notices to customers accused of infringement by entertainment companies. The sources have also confirmed that Cox is a member. (You can read more about that here: "Comcast, Cox join RIAA antipiracy campaign.")

Representatives of the RIAA could not be reached for comment.

Cicconi told attendees of the Leadership Music Digital Summit that the notices, which are sent via e-mail, are part of a "trial." AT&T wants to test customer reaction, he said. It was unclear Tuesday evening if AT&T had included any threats to suspend or shut off service.

The RIAA had said that under its "graduated response" plan, repeat offenders faced the possibility of their ISP suspending or terminating service--at least temporarily. There are also other forms of escalating responses, such as the sending of multiple letters. Some of the notices could take a stronger tone or perhaps the ISP might follow-up with a phone call. Managers at the organization have also said they support due process to protect people from being falsely accused. What the due process includes has yet to be determined.

Reached Wednesday morning, Claudia Jones, an AT&T spokeswoman, said the company's letters do include a mention that company retains the right to terminate service. She wanted to make it clear that AT&T has no intention of doing so, however. Jones also said the ISP never shares customers' names or any other personal information. What the company does do is send a "cover letter" to the accused customer along with the letter the ISP received from the RIAA stating that the person's IP address was flagged.

AT&T goes on to tell the accused customer that the problem may be caused by a teenager in the house who may be illegally downloading or that the customer might have an insecure Internet connection and that someone could be using it to steal content.

The ISP also informs the customer that downloading unauthorized copies is illegal and should be prevented. As for chronic offenders, Jones was less specific but said: "We can't assume that people are stealing. All we know is that they are using a lot of bandwidth. We can't be the police or the copyright enforcer...that's up to the content owner."

All the activity going on with AT&T, Comcast, and Cox is likely the first stage in what promises to be a long and drawn out process of using ISPs to help protect copyright material.

ISPs have traditionally tried to stay out of the fray between the big entertainment companies and those who download music illegally. They remain squeamish about the possibility of alienating customers, according to music industry sources. The ISPs also don't like plans that call for them to cut off access and chase away a source of income.

Note to readers: Have you received a warning letter from AT&T or another ISP? If so, e-mail me by clicking on the link in my bio below. Please include your contact information. I won't reveal your name in any story if that's what you prefer.