The proposed Copyright Alert System, in which U.S. Internet service providers would identify customers who download music or movies without authorization, has been roundly criticized as abusive. At first glance, the "six strikes" plan may seem scary, but the program's sponsors insist that the rhetoric has been overblown. Is the plan as worrisome as its critics contend?

The Copyright Alert System is a program proposed in July 2012 by the Center For Copyright Information, the coalition of movie, music, and bandwidth providers that includes the Motion Picture Association of America, Record Industry Association of America, and internet service providers AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon. Ostensibly designed to increase awareness of copyright infringement, the initiative calls for consumers who are detected downloading unauthorized material to be issued a series of six warnings. Consumers who failed to respond to the warnings would face "mitigation measures" that might include throttling bandwidth. Originally scheduled to roll out in July 2012, the program has been delayed indefinitely.

The plan has prompted widespread criticism by commentators who view it as intrusive and draconian. However, the Center for Copyright Information says that people need to relax. This week, CCI Executive Director Jill Lesser wrote an op-ed responding to some of the most alarmist commentary. 

"Our work at CCI is about educating consumers about how to legally and ethically enjoy the movies and music they love," Lesser wrote. Educating, that is, and not punishing, as many people have been led to believe. ISPs would not be spying on consumers, according to Lesser. Instead, they would rely on tips from copyright holders, who would notify ISPs of the IP addresses of customers suspected of illegally downloading copyright material. 

How the Copyright Alert System Will Work

So how would copyright holders find those IP addresses? As a blog post from Sandvine explains, third-party companies known as media defenders monitor activity on peer-to-peer file-sharing services like The Pirate Bay and can extract a list of user IP addresses by connecting to trackers for specific media files. These companies used to look up the ISP of each IP address and then ask the service provider for contact information. Under the Copyright Alert System, that step would be eliminated and users would remain anonymous. The ISPs would send a series of messages to the account holder, informing them of the evils of piracy. 

"Alerts will be non-punitive and progressive in nature," according the CCI's website. "Successive alerts will reinforce the seriousness of the copyright infringement and inform the recipient how to address the activity that is precipitating the alerts."

After six warnings, the ISP may take punitive action. Throttling users' connections is apparently on the table, but nobody would be kicked offline for good, according to the CCI. Last month, TorrentFreak reported that the most egregious offenders would be deemed "unreachable" by the program and subsequently ignored. 

Indeed, the system appears designed to educate consumers, as Lesser said, and that's about it. It may be toothless, but it seems likely to succeed in curtailing some infringement. Hardcore torrenters are likely to dismiss the warnings. But less savvy Web users - especially the parents of movie-downloading teenagers - would probably be spooked by a memo from their service provider telling them they're doing something illegal.