Are ISPs Becoming the Internet’s Cops... or Keystone Kops?

HOLLYWOOD—In the brave new world that is the 21st century, The Man is no longer just the cops. With respect to your online behavior, security, privacy and basic rights, companies are now taking the place of law enforcement, and it isn’t always pretty.

A recent article on CNET tells the story of Cathi "Cat" Paradiso, a Colorado-based grandmother and technical recruiter who recently found her internet service suspended amid accusations from the provider that she had illegally downloaded several mainstream movies and television shows.

A Qwest Communications customer service rep gave her the bad news. Her internet service was suspended after Hollywood studios had contacted them and told them that Paradiso had illegally downloaded 18 films and TV shows, including Zombieland, Harry Potter and South Park. She was warned that if she was accused of copyright infringement one more time, her account would be terminated and other ISPs in the area would be notified, with the result that she would have a hard—if not impossible—time finding new service.

The problem, according to Paradiso, was that she was innocent of the charges. Adding insult to injury, she had been accused and convicted without being given the opportunity to defend herself. She decided to not accept the verdict.

"Take me off your hit list," she wrote in a Jan. 15 email plea to some of the studios who had accused her. "I have never downloaded a movie. Period. ... You'll need to admit you made a mistake and move on to the correct perpetrator. ... I am saying this once more: My computer is not a toy. My livelihood depends on my ISP's reliability. Look for the perpetrator and leave my service alone."

According to CNET, she was eventually cleared, but only after they interceded on her behalf.

“Last week,” wrote Greg Sandoval, “Qwest had a technician investigate—after CNET began making inquiries—and he discovered that her network had been compromised, according to Monica Martinez, a Qwest spokeswoman. So Paradiso is off the hook, but she wants to know what would have happened had she not gone to the media. There was no independent third party to hear her complaint. There was no one to advocate for her.”

According to Fred von Lohmann, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, this case highlights the problems inherent in corporate entities doing the jobs of law enforcement or the courts, without proper procedures in place. "If you're going to kick somebody off the Internet, [there are] a lot of procedures that need to be put in place to protect the innocent. It doesn't look like those were in place here," he told CNET.

As it stands now, however, there are no industry standards in place that determine how paying customers accused of copyright infringement should be treated. Instead, it’s every company for itself.

“Some ISPs are more aggressive in helping copyright owners than others,” says Sandoval. “Cox Communications has said it has terminated internet access of a tiny number of customers accused of multiple copyright violations. Qwest is apparently another ISP that takes a strong stand on protecting intellectual property.

“Martinez said that any customer accused of violating copyright is notified by e-mail or letter before Qwest initiates any service interruption. The company works with customers who believe they are wrongly accused and it ‘routinely results in good resolutions’ for all, she said.”

"We will work with them if there is a security issue or a mistake as much as we can," Martinez said. "What we can do is sometimes limited."

Paradiso, who claims she never received any e-mails or letters from Qwest notifying her of the problem, has retained an attorney—Lory Lybeck, who also represents Tanya Andersen, a woman wrongly accused by the music industry of illegal file sharing five years ago.

CNET also spoke with Mark Ishikawa, founder of BayTSP, the online security firm that originally notified Qwest that Paradiso had illegally downloaded movies owned by Viacom. Ishikawa, who used to market BayTSP to the adult industry, was adamant that his system has enough redundancy in place to ensure the accuracy of its results. The problem with the Paradiso situation, he said, was her unsecured network.

"That's like leaving your keys in your car," he said. "She essentially became the neighborhood's ISP."

The question then becomes whether such a person should be penalized for not being tech-savvy enough to “lock down” their wireless network. Paradiso said Qwest is currently working with her to secure her network, but she worries about all the other people out there who don’t even realize that they could unwittingly be leaving their wireless networks open, and themselves open to future harassment by internet service providers, or worse. Not addressing that issue, she told CNET, could cost Hollywood more than a few downloaded movies.

“Paradiso, an artist who has sold several paintings, says that if one of the reasons for enlisting ISPs to help fight piracy is that it generates less public animosity than suing fans, then Hollywood loses those benefits when it falsely accuses people,” wrote Sandoval.