In the bandwidth-rich KC market, is Google Fiber going too far to foil digital piracy?

In passing along threats from copyright holders, Google Fiber says it merely plays the role of go-between. Better to let customers know that they could be in big trouble — that paying a little now could save them from forking over big bucks in court later.
In passing along threats from copyright holders, Google Fiber says it merely plays the role of go-between. Better to let customers know that they could be in big trouble — that paying a little now could save them from forking over big bucks in court later. The Kansas City Star

It’s just so … tempting.

All that bandwidth, a newfound surplus on the freshly paved Kansas City infobahn, makes cheating your way to a massive music collection or movie catalog that much easier.

Arguably no place in the country and few places on the planet offer such quick download speeds for so little money.

Then comes the buzzkill.

Google Fiber forwards you a notice from the self-styled copyright police. It’s working with the owners of content to warn customers suspected of filching songs, movies and software that they need to stop. But Google — in a way its competitors don’t — also passes along threat letters from rights holders that you had better pay fines now or face the prospect of six-figure-plus legal claims later.

The tech press has howled. It objects to dishing out essentially automated fines to possibly innocent customers. Those Internet subscribers could decide that paying for an offense they didn’t commit might prove less painful than battling a claim in court — an increasingly remote possibility.

“Et tu, Google?” posed tech website BGR last week. “Why is Google seemingly putting Google Fiber users out to dry? … With content owners often taking a ‘let’s threaten everyone’ approach when it comes to piracy, it’s a shame that Google is sacrificing their users at the altar of transparency.”

“This appears to be a strange stance for Google to take,” ZDNet wrote. It could end up turning off potential Fiber customers and sending them to Internet service companies that “refuse to feed the piracy notice revenue model.”

Said ExtremeTech: “It’s an unnecessary headache for end users, particularly those who may find themselves falsely accused.”

Google responds that it merely plays the role of go-between. Better to let customers know that they could be in big trouble — that paying a little now could save them from forking over big bucks in court later.

“When Google Fiber receives a copyright complaint about an account, we pass along all of the information we receive to the account holder so that they’re aware of it and can determine the response that’s best for their situation,” the company said in an email to The Star. “Although we think there are better solutions to fighting piracy than targeting individual downloaders, we want to be transparent with our customers.”

Under the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998, Internet service providers, or ISPs, must set terms of use that could cost customers their service if they repeatedly download pirated goods. Those ISPs also report that they almost never exercise that shutdown policy.

Google Fiber’s competitors alert customers that they have been accused of pirating, but they don’t pass along the requests for payments or threats of legal action.

Those companies say they’re doing all that Congress requires to protect the entertainment industry against virtual property theft in the Digital Age. But they say their role stops there. As one cable executive put it, Chevy doesn’t play a part in collecting fines from speeders, so why would an Internet provider get involved in forcing pirates to pay up?

Pirate territory?

Tens of thousands of homes in the Kansas City market now plug into warp-speed Internet express lanes, where the seduction to scoop up pirated loot becomes especially seductive. An album downloaded quicker than you can name that tune. A full-length, high-def feature film saved to your desktop before the opening credits on that very same flick make their first scroll across the screen at the local cineplex.

Google Fiber debuted its gigabit-per-second service, nearly 100 times faster than the national norm, in late 2012. Although still slow to arrive in some neighborhoods, once it’s installed, your home hookup ceases to pose the maddening bottleneck between you and the cached booty of the Web.

After Google landed, Time Warner Cable doubled speeds without raising rates. AT&T and Consolidated Communications (formerly SureWest) essentially matched Google Fiber’s speeds and prices in limited neighborhoods.

So the combined bandwidth of just three homes in the market today can equal the entire data pipe used by the University of Missouri-Kansas City campus at the start of the second Obama term.

Although geeks drooled at the prospect of the digital gusher that represented, the entertainment industry cringed.

It has long battled the side effects of digital technology. The ability to produce identical, often virtual, copies of something means a single purchase or theft by one person can mean passing along freebie — and profitless — versions to millions.

Speed, the industry has warned, matters.

“There are problems that can, in terms of (an) increase of digital piracy, come with that,” a spokesman for the Motion Picture Association of America said before Google Fiber launched in Kansas City. “But we are hopeful that efforts can be made … to address digital piracy.”

Before the first Kansas City homes had Google Fiber, Sony and Warner Bros. commissioned a SmithGeiger study to explore whether dramatically faster Internet speeds might spawn more movie pirating.

First leaked to TorrentFreak last year, the 2012 survey found that nearly one-third of the respondents already downloaded pirated movies. Once Google Fiber arrived, respondents told the survey firm, about one-third would be less likely to rent DVDs and nearly as many said they would be less likely to buy movie discs.

Slightly more than a third also said the faster Internet would coax them to use more pay-to-play streaming services such as Netflix.

But 32 percent said they expected “to do more illegal downloading or streaming.” Of those who said they would pirate more with Google Fiber, half would be new to content theft.

SmithGeiger then imagined what might happen if the whole country had Kansas City-style hyperspeeds. It projected hundreds of millions of acts of movie piracy a year and annual losses to the studios well north of $2 billion.

Cracking down

Pirate hunting is mostly a bluff-and-bully endeavor.

Music labels took steep losses when the Web blossomed and pirating in peer-to-peer networks — the old Napster and the imitators that followed — meant people could tap into vast reservoirs of stolen songs. In 2000, music recording in the United States was a $14 billion business. Today it’s worth just half of that.

It retaliated at first partly by tracking down people who downloaded tracks illegally and, from roughly 2003 to 2008, hitting them with high-dollar lawsuits. Some of those sued included children and grandparents, sympathetic players pitted against record labels that looked to many like they were bullying ordinary Americans.

Now the industry says pirating has at least leveled off, that people have become more sensitive to the ethical problems of grabbing pirated content and that consumers now have better options. They can buy music and movies through iTunes or the Google Play Store, stream content from Pandora, Spotify or Netflix.

“The lawsuit program had run its course,” said Cara Duckworth Weiblinger, a spokeswoman for the Recording Industry Association of America. “Piracy doesn’t make sense anymore. There’s so many legal options to get music.”

But, she conceded, “piracy will always be a problem.”

“It’s just intuitive,”said Sarah Burstein, an associate law professor at the University of Oklahoma and an expert in copyright law. “There’s an opportunity there that becomes more attractive when you’ve got really fast broadband rather than, say, dial-up.”

Yet she sees that same bandwidth leading consumers to legal options — quick and easy downloads that promise high quality without the danger of computer viruses or legal problems.

Meanwhile, the entertainment industry and Internet service providers had been negotiating. Copyright holders wanted help sinking pirates. The ISPs wanted to prevent federal laws forcing them to crack down on, and alienate, their customers.

The major players — relatively small Google Fiber was not among them — formed the Center for Copyright Information based around an agreement that companies selling Internet service would pass along heads-up messages to consumers suspected of downloading pirated material. But they would not share the identity of those customers without a subpoena or court order.

Still, some smaller record labels and sectors of the movie industry pursue more aggressive tactics. They often hire firms such as Rightscorp Inc., much like bill collecting agencies, to press people for compensation for receiving stolen digital goods.

Such agencies send out settlement letters. But the five largest ISPs in the country, controlling 71 percent of the market, don’t play along. The Internet Security Task Force, a coalition of rights holders and the companies they hire to collect fees, says that has cut off a valuable tool for discouraging pirating.

“Their customers are free to continue pirating content with absolutely no consequences,” the organization said in a news release in mid-May.

Yet pursuing downloaders might seem like Pyrrhic battles. So you steal a movie online. What has the studio lost? Maybe the $30 it would cost to take the family to a theater? But the industry has a hammer. Federal law allows for payments to rights holders of up to $150,000 per violation. Suddenly the 19 songs from Taylor Swift’s “1989” album look pretty steep.

Tricky chase

Copyright holders often track down websites that have lifted that game software, movies and music — and sue them. They don’t stop with those creating the supply of pirated bounty. They also hunt down those who create demand for the stolen work.

With court orders, they often gain access to the websites’ computer servers. Those servers typically keep logs of Internet Protocol, or IP, addresses that show where the downloads took place.

But they don’t necessarily show who clicked where they shouldn’t have.

Dave Parker, who lives in Kansas City’s Waldo neighborhood, received an email last year from IP-Echolon on behalf of Columbia Pictures and forwarded by Google Fiber. (IP-Echelon declined to comment for this story.) It warned that Parker’s “Internet account was identified as having been used recently to copy and/or distribute illegally the copyrighted” Tom Hanks movie “Captain Phillips” — about another kind of modern-day pirate.

The note told Parker to stop downloading illegal copies of Columbia movies and to delete the movie from his computer. In forwarding the note, Google Fiber said it had not “shared any information about you with the complaining party, nor will we unless we receive a subpoena or are otherwise required by law to do so.”

But Google reminded Parker that the company’s terms of service mean it can cut off Internet connections to customers who repeatedly use the hookup for “unlawful activities.”

The problem is, Parker said, he didn’t download the movie. He manages the Google Fiber account in the home where he rents an apartment. Maybe it was somebody who used to live in another unit there. Perhaps somebody hacked into the Wi-Fi. Parker doesn’t know.

The 68-year-old is a former information technology professional and a musician. Parker downloads music, but he pays for it because he says he’s “sensitive to people getting paid for their efforts.”

He asked Google what was going on and a company representative just suggested in an online forum he make sure the household network was protected by strong passwords and free of malicious software.

Although the notice Parker received did not hit him up for money, Google Fiber passes along messages that do.

What the collection outfits call “settlement letters” can seek from $20 to several hundred dollars to close a claim. One recently published example suggested that a copyright holder would “pursue every available remedy, including injunctions and recovery of attorney’s fees, costs and any and all other damages … as a result of any action that is commenced against you.”

Google’s competition takes another approach. Like Google, they don’t pass on customer information without a court order. But the others also don’t forward efforts to seek payment.

“That really isn’t our function,” said Rob Koester, the vice president of product management at Consolidated Communications. “That’s between the copyright holder and the Internet subscriber.”

AT&T said in a statement that “if a content owner contacts us about a customer possibly sharing copyrighted material, we contact and educate the customer.” Barring a court order, that’s it.

Time Warner Cable, which still dominates the Kansas City market, also doesn’t pass efforts to collect money from suspected pirates.

“We understand the importance of protecting intellectual and artistic property and take steps to educate our customers about the laws that protect copyrighted materials,” the company said in a statement. “Just as importantly, customers have rights too, and we want to make sure they understand them.”

That reflects differing attitudes about whether a service that someone needs to get pirated material should help police the traffic.

“It gets close to violating privacy, partly because an ISP can know so much about what someone is doing — the terms they search, the websites they visit,” said Dan Andresen, a professor of computing and information sciences at Kansas State University. “If they’re certain I’ve stolen something, then fine, start your legal proceedings. … But I don’t want the company providing my Internet passing something along just on another company’s say-so.”

To reach Scott Canon, call 816-234-4754 or send email to Twitter: @ScottCanon.