In prepared remarks delivered to Congress (PDF) on Wednesday, Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) CEO Cary Sherman said that the movie and music industries are working behind the scenes to encourage major Internet companies to voluntarily censor the Internet in an effort to better protect intellectual property rights.
Sherman’s testimony came amid a House Energy and Commerce Committee hearing on “The Future of Audio,” during which members of Congress were considering allowing FM receivers be inserted into next generation smartphones, which would see radio stations paying more in performance rights. Sherman, however, decided to talk about piracy, saying that despite the growing popularity of legitimate online music streaming services, illegal downloading is still essentially killing the industry and more must be done to fight it.
“We hope other intermediaries like search engines will… [negotiate] voluntary marketplace best practices to prevent directing users to sites that are dedicated to violating property rights,” he told the committee.
Despite Sherman’s hopes, that’s not likely to happen.
Search giant Google has been an ardent defender of the same cloud-based storage websites the RIAA calls “rogue,” and even filed an amicus brief on behalf of one so-called “cyber locker” website earlier this year in a prosecution brought by the movie and music industries, accusing the site of a copyright infringement conspiracy. Their attorneys argued that the movie and music industries fundamentally misunderstand the law and are trying to use it in an abusive manner, to the point where they are actually threatening the very existence of the social Internet.
The same groups were behind an enforcement action carried out against user-upload site MegaUpload.com, which Sherman hailed as a landmark achievement for the industry. “The indictment of MegaUpload has had a tremendous impact on other such rogue cyberlocker sites,” he said. “The government’s action sends a signal that the UnitedStates will not tolerate the use of the Internet for criminal activity that violates our laws.”
But where they cannot achieve their goals through government action, the RIAA and counterparts at the Motion Picture Association of American (MPAA) have sought to achieve voluntary compliance. One of their most recent successes in this arena will see America’s largest Internet service providers launching a copyright spying scheme on July 1 of this year that will monitor Internet users’ traffic and interrupt them with messages of possible legal sanctions if infringing activities are detected.
“Just last year, we announced a voluntary program with ISPs that will be implemented later this year to address illegal downloads on P2P networks,” Sherman told members of Congress. “We also helped craft an agreement with major credit card companies and payment processors on voluntary best practices to reduce sales of counterfeit and pirated goods. And just last month, major advertisers and ad agencies announced a series of voluntary best practices so that their valuable brands are not associated with rogue Internet sites that offerillegal goods, and advertisers don’t inadvertently enrich rogue website operators.”
One example of a voluntary industry “best practice” formulated in recent years are the shared blacklists used by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other major Internet corporations to track sites that are known to host malicious software. While these companies usually just insert a warning page cautioning users that a given site may be harmful, they do not completely block users from accessing them.
Microsoft, however, inadvertently demonstrated earlier this year what a more advanced “best practice” might look like, when it began censoring links to The Promo Bay, a legal media sharing website spun off by the creators of The Pirate Bay, one of the Internet’s leading hubs for illegal downloaders.
Despite that site’s purported legitimacy, it landed on the “SmartScreen” blacklist used by Microsoft, likely due to a report by a copyright holder, and the company suddenly began actively preventing users of its Windows Live Messenger program from sharing links to it. Other sites that were offering identical content could be shared through the service, but Microsoft’s chat client simply explained to users that The Promo Bay “was blocked because it was reported as unsafe,” with users on the other end left unaware the communication ever took place.
“These voluntary programs are not a panacea. No program ever will be,” Sherman told Congress. “And sometimes, the Congress must step in to assure that our property rights, and U.S. economic interests, are being protected. Especially against sites overseas whose business model is the theft of U.S. works. But collectively, we think these collaborative efforts will make a difference. They are the product of outreach, and a lot of conversation over several years — not only with these intermediaries, but also with public interest groups who want to figure out how to address online problems while ensuring the reasonable preservation of a free and open Internet.
“We need to engage in the same sort of outreach directly with the tech and Internet communities, and I am committed to doing that — because, in the end, we all have an interest in an Internet that is open and accessible, but not lawless.”
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