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Verizon's new role as copyright enforcer

January 20, 2010 |  6:22 pm

CNet's News.com reported today that Verizon Communications, one of the country's largest providers of broadband Internet access, has started cutting off the accounts of people accused of repeatedly infringing copyrights. The company says it doesn't monitor what its customers are doing on their DSL or fiber-optic connections; it leaves the job of detecting infringements to the MPAA, RIAA and other copyright holders. Instead, when it receives a notice from a copyright holder about an alleged infringement linked to one of its lines, it sends a notice to the account holder identifying the work(s) at issue and warning, "You are legally responsible for all activity originating from your account."

A Verizon spokeswoman told News.com that few accounts have been terminated as a result of repeated accusations of infringement. A single warning letter has been enough to stop the complaints about the vast majority of lines, she said. And that's a good thing -- it's hard to defend garden-variety file-sharing, particularly when there's plenty of authorized content available free online. Verizon also insists that it doesn't tell copyright holders the names of the people it sends warning letters to, in keeping with its privacy policies.

Nevertheless, there are a couple of things that trouble me about what Verizon is doing. I'm not a lawyer, but I don't believe it's true that broadband account holders are "legally responsible for all activity" on their lines. And neither does Fred von Lohmann, a senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation who's active on copyright issues. 

"What they might mean to say is we, Verizon, are going to hold you responsible," von Lohmann said. But the courts have stopped well short of that, von Lohmann said. For example, he noted cases where judges have refused to hold account holders liable for infringements done by their children. In fact, in at least one case a judge ordered the RIAA to pay the attorney fees for a parent it tried to hold indirectly liable for an offspring's file-sharing. 

That brings me to a second sticking point. As much as I like the idea of warning accused infringers, it's simply impossible to know who, exactly, is sitting at the keyboard when a broadband account is being used to download a bootlegged copy of "Sherlock Holmes." So before an ISP cuts off an account holder who's drawn multiple complaints from copyright owners, I think there should be a persuasive showing that a) the complaints are valid, b) the subscriber was aware of the complaints and could do something to address them, and c) the subscriber unreasonably refused to do so. 

Verizon's experience shows that most people stop blatantly infringing (by themselves or their kids) when they're caught in the act. And once an ISP starts sending out notices to suspected infringers, it doesn't make sense to shrug off those who ignore the warning letters. But given the uncertainty about who's actually responsible, it seems draconian to cut off account holders without giving them something approaching due process.

-- Jon Healey

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