Here we go again: ISPs as copyright police

badge.jpg Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement talks are underway today in Seoul, South Korea, with proposals on the table that would force ISPs to watch for and ultimately punish illegal downloaders of copyrighted content. For now, reports on the substance of the talks is limited to a few press reports (see this IDG story as well as an analysis from the Electronic Frontier Foundation). For service providers, the desire to be good corporate citizens on this issue has to be balanced with the practical issue of how to implement such a scheme and the ongoing battles over the outer bounds of net neutrality.

In play is not just the idea of having ISPs track downloaders, but playing * enforcement * cop as well. Options include sending out e-mails/letters to violators or even throttling network bandwidth as a warning, a tactic that Richard Cotton, general counsel for NBC Universal, recently proposed in a SUPERCOMM keynote.

The talks come as net neutrality issues heat up in the U.S., which at their heart call for service providers to take a hands-off approach to what travels over their network. Content providers, though — especially the music, TV and movie industries — aren’t so much concerned with neutrality but what they believe is the business-model-demolishing theft of their content online.

Last December, the Recording Industry Association of America said it was already working with ISPs on an enforcement approach that involved the provider sending up to three e-mails to users who share music with others. After that, according to the plan, the ISP may cut off or restrict the user’s Internet access.

Such a three-strikes approach is in play in France while U.K. ISPs have agreed to send out notices on behalf of the copyright holders but stopped short of banning individual users.

We were surprised how openly NBC’s Cotton was in calling for ISP help on enforcement from the SUPERCOMM stage, and in an interview after his speech (listen to podcast excerpts from that speech here).

Like net neutrality, the concept of ISPs-as-copyright-cops is clearly in play.

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