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RIAA drops mass lawsuits, recruits ISPs to crack the whip

The headlines across the blogosphere make it sound like the Recording Industry Association of America has thrown in the towel and decided to stop going after music pirates on the Internet. That's not exactly the case.

The headlines across the blogosphere make it sound like the Recording Industry Association of America has thrown in the towel and decided to stop going after music pirates on the Internet. That's not exactly the case.

Instead, the RIAA is teaming up with Internet Service Providers to identify and, potentially, blacklist offenders from obtaining an Internet connection in the future. That keeps the RIAA from having to subpoena the ISPs for user information and instead puts the ISP into the hot seat to crack the whip on the customer. OK, maybe blacklisting would be an extreme, last resort after repeated warnings - but I could see it headed that way.

Still, something stinks when the ISP that I pay every month suddenly turns on me and climbs into bed with the RIAA. It's an ISP, not an ISI (Internet Service Informant). And the idea that ISPs would agree to take action - first, by reducing the customer's bandwidth and eventually discontinuing service and potentially blacklisting the customer - based on an allegation by the RIAA is deeply troubling. Cindy Cohn, legal director for the Electronic Frontier Foundation tells CNET:

This is very troubling. Creating lists of people who can't get Internet access based on allegations of breaking a law that hasn't been evaluated in a court of law. It's good that that the (RIAA) wants to stop suing individuals but they should haven't done it in the first place. I'd be especially concerned if the music labels can get you kicked off one ISP and then arrange to get you kicked off others, or the creation of blacklists. That's certainly what our fears have been about private legal enforcement regimen.

Clearly, the 35,000 or so lawsuits filed by the RIAA over the last five years hasn't brought piracy to a halt, though the RIAA claims the suits did reduce the amount of piracy. Hmmm. I don't know that it was fear of lawyers that slowed the piracy as much as it was the innovation that brought new types of legal music-buying options to the stage. Remember: there was no iTunes or Rhapsody or anything else like that when the original Napster introduced people to the concept of sharing digital music files over the Internet years ago. Now, there are choices and it's clear by the business that Apple does with the iTunes store that there are plenty of law-abiding citizens out there.

As far as the ISPs are concerned, I'm increasingly becoming troubled by what they're agreeing to do - or at least considering. I understand that service providers want a fair share of the Internet pie. After all, they're providing the pipelines to the Internet. They're being forced to play traffic cop on the usage of those pipelines. And they're constantly being asked to deliver more capacity by customers who are also demanding lower rates. But should they really be resorting to things like Deep Packet Inspection as a form of serving ads or cutting a back-alley deal with the recording industry? What's next? A little extortion so they won't tell your spouse about those visits to gambling or - ahem - other taboo Web sites.

I don't blame the RIAA for wanting to curb piracy but can't some of that be done through education, rather than enforcement? Maybe the education campaign needs to reach beyond MTV and focus more on ESPN, Oprah and 60 Minutes, places where moms and dads are watching. And don't just tell them that piracy is wrong and that they should stop their kids from doing it. Tell mom and dad that the kids can get them into deep trouble by pirating music.

True story: I stopped to visit an old friend the other day and he happened to be "downloading some free music" on a P2P site. He's a pretty smart guy but not very tech savvy. He truly had no idea that what he was doing could have the RIAA on his case. Like so many other households, the Internet account is in his name but his teenage kids are the ones who installed the P2P software and showed him how to find music on the Web. I gave him a quick schooling and he was honestly surprised by what I told him about piracy and lawsuits.

I don't know if he'll stop swiping music off the Web. But he can rest assured that the RIAA won't bully me into coughing up his name and address.