Industry trade groups like the RIAA and the MPAA have been beating on Congressional doors for years now in a fruitless attempt to restrict Internet access for rampant file-sharers. Thanks to a tangled web of possible political and legal ramifications, the government's been hesitant to drop the banhammer on everyday pirates. Sick of the foot-dragging, the content associations just went Dirty Harry. No, they didn't take the law into their own hands – they bypassed it completely by forging a deal with the largest ISPs, who will now take a "graduated response" against file-sharers at the copyright owners' command.
The new agreement isn't a three-strikes-and-you're-out arrangement, as was previously rumored. Instead, Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, Cablevision and Time Warner Cable will send users an alert "in response to a notice from a copyright holder" like the RIAA. If someone continues to download or upload copyrighted content, a "graduated response" takes effect: ISPs will redirect users to a splash page containing the warning or start sending pop-ups insinuating that their customers are dirty criminals. After five "alerts," the ISPs turn to "Mitigation measures," which are oh-so-nebulous "measures that the ISP may deem necessary to help resolve the matter."
The agreement cites a couple of examples of possible mitigation measures, such as reduced Internet speeds and users being stuck on a landing page until they call the ISP to talk about "educational information about copyright" and apparently pass some sort of quiz or something. Theoretically, "measures that the ISP may deem necessary" could involve the complete termination of services, although the agreement doesn't include that as a specific requirement.
Don't like the idea of having your Internet access subject to the whims of the RIAA? Feel you were wrongly accused to infringement? Tell it to the judge! Oh, wait, this agreement bypasses judges and courts because it "creates no new laws or formal legal procedures, nor does this system require account suspension or termination," so you can't tell it to the judge. If you think you were incorrectly accused of infringement, you can pay $35 to get an "independent review," whatever that means.
In addition to the RIAA and MPAA, PC World reports the "American Association of Independent Music, and the Independent Film and Television Alliance will participate in the agreement." We don't condone copyright infringement, but this doesn't seem like the right answer to the pirating problem.
Update: US Copyright Czar Victoria Espinel has published a post on the White House blog applauding the union. "We believe that this agreement is a positive step and consistent with our strategy of encouraging voluntary efforts to strengthen online intellectual property enforcement and with our broader Internet policy principles, emphasizing privacy, free speech, competition and due process," she wrote.