AT&T is terminating the broadband service of more than a dozen customers who were accused multiple times of copyright infringement, according to a report by Axios today.
“It’s the first time AT&T has discontinued customer service over piracy allegations since having shaped its own piracy policies last year, which is significant given it just became one of America’s major media companies [with the purchase of Time Warner],” Axios wrote.
Axios’ report is based partly on anonymous sources, but AT&T also confirmed the news in official statements to Axios and Ars. The allegedly pirating customers will receive their disconnection notices within a week or so; each one already “received at least nine separate notifications with allegations of copyright infringement from content owners,” Axios wrote.
It’s not clear whether the notices came from AT&T-owned Time Warner properties, other content providers, or both. We asked AT&T that question but did not receive an answer.
Here’s what AT&T told Ars today:
Content owners notified us when they believed they had evidence that an Internet account was sharing copyrighted material unlawfully. Based on the notices we received, we identified the customer on the account and share[d] with them the information we received. We also reached out to the customer to educate them about copyright infringement and offer assistance to help prevent the activity from continuing. A small number of customers who continue to receive additional copyright infringement notifications from content owners despite our efforts to educate them will have their service discontinued.
Six-strikes system replaced
In 2013, AT&T and other ISPs began using a “six-strikes” Copyright Alert System, working in conjunction with the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). The system ended up doing little to thwart copyright infringement and was shut down early last year.
The system’s demise meant individual ISPs were left to develop their own policies for handling complaints from copyright owners. In the case of AT&T and other companies such as NBCUniversal owner Comcast, those ISPs and content owners are now one and the same.
Disconnection of accounts is apparently stricter than any penalty imposed by AT&T under the old six-strikes system. When six strikes was active, AT&T said it would not disconnect customer accounts or throttle speeds over piracy—the program was aimed mostly at educating and warning customers.
Pirates identified by IP address
An AT&T FAQ explains how copyright infringers are identified:
When files are distributed on the Internet over peer-to-peer networks, the IP address associated with a subscriber’s account is visible by design to other users on the network. Content owners and their agents have developed state-of-the-art software that participates in these peer-to-peer networks to identify pirated film, TV, and music content that they own and the IP addresses associated with the distribution of that content. Content owners provide these IP addresses to AT&T along with additional information about the content that was allegedly shared by that IP address. AT&T matches the IP address sent by the content owner to the specific customer to whom that IP address was assigned at that time and then forwards the information provided by the content owner to that user. As noted above, AT&T does not provide identifying information about the user to the content owner(s) unless ordered to do so by a Court.
The FAQ says AT&T will provide written notice before terminating a customer’s account for repeat copyright infringement. The company also gives customers a chance to provide a written explanation if they believe the notice is in error.
The FAQ goes on to say that “AT&T does not monitor what our customers are downloading, and we will not provide identifying information about a subscriber to copyright owners unless required to do so by lawful request.”
More information on AT&T’s copyright alert program is available here. While copyright enforcement can apply to both home and wireless Internet under AT&T’s Acceptable Use Policy, we assume most such incidents occur on the home Internet service.
Copyright owners have sued ISPs such as Cox and Grande Communications for allegedly failing to take action against copyright violators. Disconnecting repeat offenders could help AT&T avoid such a lawsuit.
AT&T’s ownership of Time Warner could also have negative impacts on customers who legally purchase access to TV content. Last week, AT&T-owned HBO and Cinemax were pulled from Dish’s satellite TV service and the Dish-owned Sling TV streaming service over a money dispute, marking the first-ever blackout for HBO in its 46-year history.