The Center for Copyright Information, an organization founded and funded by media industry organizations, their members and Internet Service Providers (ISPs), yesterday announced that it would push back the start date and will likely begin to roll out its long anticipated “Copyright Alert System” in the early part of 2013.  The announcement comes on the day the roll out had previously been rumored to begin. The Copyright Alert System or “CAS” is the result of an agreement among major ISPs and media industry organizations to work together and find new ways to reduce piracy.  According to the Center for Copyright Information, the program is primarily intended to be “educational” in nature.  ISPs, with the help of the third party firm MarkMonitor, will monitor for potentially infringing activity and then Internet users, when suspected of infringing activities, will receive a series of progressive alerts or “strikes” designed to inform them on copyright laws and dissuade them from further infringement.

In the first two of these strikes, users will receive an email letting them know they are suspected of downloading or sharing infringing material.  This email will contain information on ways to avoid illegal file sharing and include some suggestions on where they could seek out the same copyrighted material legally.

The third and fourth strikes will be in the form of an internet “pop-up” or a mandatory page redirect.  Users will be forced to click through some acknowledgement of their infringing activity before they can continue to use their Internet connection.  This way, or so the system is designed, if a user has ignored previous email alerts, an ISP can at least be sure by the third and fourth alerts the user is aware of the strikes.  The alert may also be meant to deal in some measure with the problem of multiple users on one Internet connection or unsecured Internet connections.

By the fifth and sixth strikes, ISPs may implement certain “mitigation measures” if they choose.  According to information on Center for Copyright Information’s website, these may include “throttling” or temporarily reducing internet speeds of the user.  Mitigation measures may also include a requirement that users contact their ISP directly to discuss their infringing activity.  None of the mitigation measures, however, go as far as cutting off a user’s service completely.

The Copyright Alert System has been the subject of heated debate. In addition to concerns of censorship and privacy, concerns have been raised regarding the fact that, in contrast to the recently failed SOPA and PIPA legislation, there is no avenue for appeal to a court of law for suspected infringers.  Instead, those served with “strikes” by their ISP must report exclusively to an arbitration firm hired by the Center for Copyright Information to organize and rule on appeals.  Furthermore, there will be a $35 filing fee for any user who wishes to appeal one of their strikes (which may be refunded should they be successful).

Other concerns that have been voiced include the breadth and collaborative scope of the CAS.  Specifically, some have suggested that with such close and extensive cooperation between all of the major United States ISP’s, certain anti-trust concerns might be implicated.

The most common criticism, however, concerns the general effectiveness of the program.  Will the CAS really do anything to cut down on piracy?  The consensus seems to be that it is doubtful sophisticated pirates will be affected by the CAS.  The use of VPN’s and other common IP masking tools will likely allow diehard pirates to keep downloading and uploading infringing content as they please.  For even unsophisticated infringers, it’s not clear having to click through a series of warnings will be anything more than a minor inconvenience.

However, the Center for Copyright Information has never claimed that the CAS is the end-all be-all solution to piracy.  Rather, it is a “progressive educational system” designed to cut down on some levels of infringement by informing consumers of the law. The CAS is premised on the assumption that most infringers do not even realize that they are infringing.  With this system of alerts, their hope is that the typical Internet subscriber is generally law abiding and would want to refrain from whatever infringing activity triggered an alert.  The Copyright Information Center claims that their research data shows most infringers would in fact “take steps to stop the unauthorized distribution of copyrighted content once alerted that it is occurring on their systems.”  If this is true, and the key to stopping online infringement is addressing some critical information gap between consumers and the copyright law, the CAS may have an impact reducing infringement. With any data regarding the effect on infringing activity some time away, the ultimate effectiveness of the CAS remains to be seen.