Is it true that Internet Service companies are working with the music industry to identify those that are downloading music? If so, how can I know if my provider is working with them? — Jason

The battle between the music industry and Internet piracy has raged on since Shawn Fanning, a college student, created a simple way to share music with his friends (Napster) back in the summer of 1999.

The claim of losses by the RIAA (Recording Industry Association of America) are in the tens of billions a year, which is impossible to verify. But it doesn’t take a math wizard to figure out that it is losing lots of money to piracy.

Before file sharing, we all shared music with our friends, but it took a lot more work and the amount of music any one person could share was relatively miniscule compared to the problem today.

With the Internet, any one person can share a song with millions of others in a matter of minutes and once it has been shared by one user, it can be shared by all users.

The RIAA’s approach to fighting this problem in past years has been to file lawsuits on individuals that were found to be sharing files in hopes that the press accounts would scare others into not participating.

Instead of going after those that downloaded the music, they wanted to scare everyone into not sharing their music, so there would be nothing to download.

Needless to say, this approach did little to persuade file sharers but it did create a bit of a public relations problem for the RIAA. Accounts of lawsuits filed against unemployed single mothers, minors, and college students demanding large sums of money (which they clearly could not pay) did little to sway the public’s opinion of the music industry’s plight.

To its credit, the RIAA realized that this approach was never going to solve the problem and recently announced that it was being stopped.

Instead, it announced, it would enlist the help of ISPs (Internet Service Providers) to notify violators and work with service providers to either “reduce” or discontinue the service to those that did not stop.

Most don’t realize how much their ISP knows about what they do online, but the RIAA clearly understands that ISPs are the gatekeepers to everything on the Internet.

All ISPs’ automated systems keep track of everything their users do, so recognizing those that are actively participating in file sharing isn’t a tough thing to do.

According to published stories, the way that the enforcement system would work is the RIAA would alert an ISP that it has a user that appears to be engaged in file sharing. The ISP would notify the user that he or she appears to be participating in file sharing and then monitor the account to see if the behavior stops.

If it doesn’t stop, the ISP would send a couple more alerts (most appear to be looking at a three-strikes-and-you’re-out approach) and then limit the user’s bandwidth or disconnect them altogether.

In essence, the RIAA is asking ISPs to become an enforcement arm for its cause and apparently it may get its way. Recent reports claim that both Comcast and AT&T are close to agreeing to work with the RIAA and others are likely to follow.

Frankly, if you’re heavily engaged in downloading copyrighted material from the Internet, not only are you violating the law, but you are exposing yourself to a myriad of infections that are prevalent on file sharing networks and should strongly consider stopping the practice.

Parents of “screenagers” (Internet savvy teenagers) should take the time to examine all the computers in their households to see if file sharing programs are installed and take the appropriate action to avoid surprises.

A list of common file sharing programs and more information about this issue are posted at Data Doctors’ radio show page.

Ken Colburn
President of Data Doctors Computer Services, Host of the award-winning Computer Corner radio show, and Author of Computer Q&A in the East Valley Tribune newspapers.