Posey's Tips & Tricks

Internet Service Providers To Become Piracy Police?

With little news on how exactly ISPs will monitor illegal online activity, giving them this much power seems like a bad idea.

I'm not normally someone who stays glued to the news, but a few weeks ago I happened to catch a headline that really grabbed my attention. The headline indicated that ISPs were about to take on a new role as piracy police. The basic idea is that stating on July 12, ISPs are going to monitor the Internet for "suspicious activity." If they detect their customers doing something suspicious they will send them a nasty letter telling them that they have been busted and will be cut off from the Internet if they continue their behavior.

According to everything that I have read, this new anti-piracy policy is designed to monitor Internet traffic in an attempt to detect the illegal upload or download of music and movies. While I absolutely do not condone piracy in any form, having ISPs police the Internet looking for illegal content just seems like a really bad idea. There are about a million different ways that doing so could backfire, and it raises a lot of questions.

The first thing that came to mind when I first heard about the anti-piracy monitoring was how the ISPs are going to be able to differentiate between legal and illegal content. Let me give you an example of what I mean.

I personally have a fairly large collection of music and movies stored on my laptop. Every piece of content on my hard drive was bought, paid for and is 100  percent legal. Now here is the tricky part: Because I have invested quite a bit of money into my media library, I obviously want to protect it by backing it up (which is also legal).  If I were to back up my music and movies to the cloud, then how will my ISP be able to differentiate between a legal backup and an illegal upload?

One thought is that an ISP could presumably check to see if the content is DRM protected. However, that doesn't really work because I have a mixture of DRM and non-DRM content.

Another thought is that an ISP might see that the content is being uploaded to or downloaded from a cloud backup provider and therefore dismiss the activity as routine maintenance (which it is) rather than piracy. Even this method isn't perfect though.

The cloud backup provider that I use offers a "briefcase" feature. The basic idea is that if I have any data that I want to share with others, I can place it in the briefcase. For example, when I returned home from Antarctica last year I uploaded a few pictures to the briefcase. The service gave me a special URL that linked to the folder, and I was able to send that URL to some friends so that they could download the pictures.

The problem with this is that if ISPs automatically ignore cloud backup sites then it is conservable that cloud backup sites could become the next portal for illegal file sharing. After all, the infrastructure is already in place.

Presumably the thing that would keep ISPs from flagging backup traffic is that communications between my computer and the backup server are encrypted. Unless the ISP were to somehow intercept the encryption key, they theoretically should not be able to monitor my backup traffic. But does this mean that media pirates will also be able to beat the Internet police by simply encrypting upload and download traffic streams? If so, then how long before some clueless politician decides that encryption of any type on the Internet should be illegal?

Needless to say, having ISPs acting as content police bothers me because traffic monitoring is an invasion of privacy and because there is too much potential for legitimate traffic to be flagged as an illegal upload or download. Even so, there is something else about all of this that bothers me even more.

If an ISP unfairly blacklists you for "suspicious" uploads or downloads, what is your recourse? To the best of my knowledge, there is no appeal process. I think that we will ultimately see a series of class action suits against ISPs from those who were unfairly disconnected, all the while there is little (if any) reduction in Internet piracy.

About the Author

Brien Posey is a 16-time Microsoft MVP with decades of IT experience. As a freelance writer, Posey has written thousands of articles and contributed to several dozen books on a wide variety of IT topics. Prior to going freelance, Posey was a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator for some of the country's largest insurance companies and for the Department of Defense at Fort Knox. In addition to his continued work in IT, Posey has spent the last several years actively training as a commercial scientist-astronaut candidate in preparation to fly on a mission to study polar mesospheric clouds from space. You can follow his spaceflight training on his Web site.

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