Corporations continue to spy on Internet users

by Max Miller – Staff Writer – nmiller@unca.edu

 

It turns out George Orwell was right all along.  He was just about 30 years off. Big Brother is watching you.

But Orwell also got one other thing wrong: the government is not the one prying into your private information.  Your cable provider is spying on you, and you are paying them for it.

Last week, Comcast became the first of many major cable providers to implement a six strike policy designed to deter illegal downloads. If you download copyrighted property illegally, you will receive two warning emails from your Internet service provider notifying you an infraction was traced to your Internet connection. The next two warnings will temporarily disable your connection until you watch a short video explaining the penalties of breaking copyright law. The last two strikes will temporarily slow your Internet connection to a crawl unless you pay a small fine to dispute the claims.

The consequences of the policy are fairly mild, but the idea itself sets a scary precedent. The six strike program allows corporations to spy on your Internet connection and exact punishment on you outside of the legal system.

In order to determine whether users are accessing torrents or file sharing sites, an ISP must have access to the user’s entire Internet history, which includes private information ranging from Facebook activity to bank transactions. Obviously, nobody expects Comcast to use this information to steal John Doe’s identity and buy a fleet of speedboats, but the entire concept is a violation of trust.

The bottom line is a cable subscriber is paying their ISP for a service, and part of that agreement is a sense of security. The six strikes policy changes the game so customers are paying to be treated as if they are criminals in advance. For every so-called pirate who torrents the newest My Bloody Valentine album, there are hundreds of average users who buy music on iTunes or pay for video streaming services like Netflix and Hulu.

Anyone who would actually be concerned they would be caught under the policy can easily find ways around it. The program gets murky when it comes to public Wi-Fi networks easily accessed in just about any Starbucks or McDonald’s, among other places, and hardcore copyright violators can spend the money to subscribe to a virtual private network, or VPN.

A VPN allows subscribers to access their Internet connection anonymously, and the monthly fee is a fair trade-off for the kind of guaranteed privacy you would expect from your ISP.

After all, if your cable provider acts on your infringement, you could wind up paying a lot more. The sixth strike, your ISP has the legal obligation to turn over your name to copyright owners such as the RIAA and the MPAA, and history tells us they will use this information to sue you to kingdom come. The U.S. judicial system has upheld Draconian fines for Internet users who were sued for downloading a handful of songs. With access to a user’s entire history, the RIAA could sue someone for months of infractions. If the fines they demand increase on the same scale, violators may find themselves in debt for generations.

Now let us suppose you agree these people are criminals who have no right to complain when they are punished. And let us ignore the argument that the punishment is absurdly incongruous to the crime. There is still a problem, and it lies in how the cable companies obtain their evidence.

ISPs use the six strikes policy to outright spy on their users outside of the U.S. legal system and coerce them into following copyright law. It sounds like they are sticking up for the copyright holders and laying down some vigilante justice for the little guy. But who are they really sticking up for?

What do episodes of “30 Rock,” Kanye West MP3s and Zero Dark Thirty all have in common? They are all copyrighted properties you could download illegally, and the same corporation owns them all. NBC, Universal Music Group and Universal Pictures are among the many subsidiaries that make up the enormous media entity that is Comcast.

Comcast is spying on your Internet connection to be sure you are not infringing on its many lucrative copyrights. They are already profiting off of you from your cable subscription, and now they are bending you backwards so you can only access copyrighted materials through legal channels. For example, instead of downloading new episodes of “Saturday Night Live,” you could always pay for a subscription to Hulu and stream them online, which is awfully convenient considering Comcast owns Hulu too.

Even if violators of copyright law stand on rocky moral footing, the use of the six strikes policy to combat them is a clear conflict of interest and a violation of trust. The power to prevent copyright infractions cannot rest in the hands of a major corporation that stands to turn a profit.

Comcast cannot continue to masquerade as the little guy. They are Big Brother, and we are all Winston Smiths. If we continue to accept their behavior, our 1984 via 2013 situation will wind up having an equally unhappy ending.