America's largest ISPs – AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon – have agreed to actively police their users on behalf of copyright owners. Their cartel-like agreement makes it impossible for most American Internet users to punish them by switching to less intrusive ISPs. The big five have agreed to pass along alerts when copyright holders accuse their customers of infringements. After 5 or 6 such alerts, they may start punishing their consumers with “temporary reductions of Internet speeds, redirection to a landing page until the subscriber contacts the ISP to discuss the matter or reviews and responds to some educational information about copyright, or other measures that the ISP may deem necessary to help resolve the matter.” Fortunately, ISPs are not obligated to engage in these “mitigation measures.”

Ars Technica takes a rather sanguine view of the agreement. We find it more disturbing. First, it is a big step towards the principle that intermediaries can and should become vehicles for policy enforcement. This subordination of internet intermediaries to public policy seriously undermines the freedom and autonomy of internet users by turning ISPs and other intermediaries into restrictive gatekeepers. Second, it reveals how ISPs can impose regulations on their customers that the customers don't want and don't get any benefit from, by acting as cartels through “voluntary agreements.” Of course, adherence to these agreements are not “voluntary” to end users. Third, it underscores how the first two problems are exacerbated by the growing concentration of the Internet industry, which makes it easier for political pressure to be imposed on ISPs and for such “voluntary agreements” to substitute for due process of law. Finally, it sets a bad precedent that can easily be extended into stronger measures.

The news release is available here, and a fact sheet describing the new copyright alert system is here.