The new Copyright Alert System, also known as the “Six Strikes” system, marks the beginning of ISPs in the USA attempting to police their subscribers’ Internet usage. The “punishments” include increasingly harsh alerts, bandwidth throttling, and restricting browsing activity.

Now that the dust has begun to settle, let’s take a look at exactly what ISPs are doing and what this means for you.

Update: ISPs ended the Copyright Alert System in January, 2017. The MPAA said the system was not successful in dealing with “hardcore repeat infringers”.

What Is the New Copyright Alert System?

The Copyright Alert System has been three years in the making. After several delays, Internet service providers began rolling it out to their customers in February 2013.

The Copyright Alert System is not a government-mandated program. It’s a private project organized by the “Center for Copyright Information,” whose members include the MPAA, RIAA, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, Cablevision, AT&T, and Verizon.

The Center for Copyright Information explains the new Copyright Alert System as an “educational” program targeted at casual downloaders. The goal is ostensibly to educate Americans about legal, approved ways of accessing content and discourage pirating it. The CCI explains their system in a YouTube video:

Monitoring Infringing BitTorrent Swarms

BitTorrent itself doesn’t provide any privacy. As a result of the way BitTorrent works, everyone downloading a file from BitTorrent is also uploading pieces of the same file to other downloaders. An organization named MarkMonitor monitors people downloading infringing content from public BitTorrent trackers.

More specifically, MarkMonitor connects to torrents containing known-infringing content located on public BitTorrent trackers, such as the ever-popular Pirate Bay. MarkMonitor attempts to download the infringing content from other peers in the swarm and, if it manages to download pieces of the content successfully, it passes along the IP address to the user’s Internet service provider. The ISP is then responsible for notifying the subscriber.

At the moment, it appears that ISPs are not employing deep packet inspection or other technologies to find pirated content. The Copyright Alert System, as it stands, is targeted solely against people downloading infringing content located on public BitTorrent trackers.

Copyright Alerts

When a participating ISP receives information about an infringement from MarkMonitor, they will pass on a warning to their customer. Warning messages may be in the form of emails to a registered email address and pop-up alerts embedded in websites. In other words, participating ISPs will modify HTTP traffic, modifying web pages you request and inserting notification alerts.

This system has been branded “Six Strikes” because subscribers will receive up to six alerts, each with escalating seriousness and consequences.

  • First and Second Alerts: Subscribers will receive an alert with information on how to prevent further infringing activity.
  • Third and Fourth Alerts: Subscribers will receive an alert, but will have to click a confirmation button to acknowledge they received the alert.
  • Fifth Alert: ISPs may use “mitigation measures” against the subscriber. A subscriber’s Internet speeds may be temporarily reduced or they may be redirected to a special informational page, preventing them from accessing other websites until they contact their ISP to discuss the matter. The exact mitigation measures depend on the ISP. Different ISPs will have different policies.
  • Sixth Alert: ISPs must enact “mitigation measures” if they have not already done so.

Should you disagree with an alert you receive, you can appeal an alert within 14 days of receiving it. There is a fee of $35 for each appeal, but you will receive the money back if you win your appeal.

Unlike other systems, such as the similarly named “Three Strikes” law in France, infringers will not be disconnected from the Internet after the last strike. Users will not receive any further alerts after the sixth.

Consequences, What Consequences?

Everyone knows that “you’re out” after three strikes, but what happens after six strikes? The answer, which may surprise you, is nothing at all.

As Jill Lesser, executive directory of the CCI, explained in an interview:

“We hope that by the time people get to alerts number five or six, they will stop. Once they’ve been mitigated, they’ve received several alerts, we’re just not gonna send them any more alerts because they’re not the kind of customer that we’re going to reach with this program.”

After the sixth alert, subscribers will not receive any further alerts. However, they may still be sued by the copyright owners. This is the same risk that existed before the Copyright Alert System came into place.

The program is targeted at deterring “casual infringers” and leaves other types of infringers to be sued in the courts.

Only Some ISPs Are Participating

As we have already mentioned, “Six Strikes” is not a law like the “Three Strikes” law in France. It’s a private program that ISPs are voluntarily entering into with organizations such as the RIAA and MPAA. At this time, only five ISPs are participating: AT&T, Cablevision, Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon.

Cox, Charter, CenturyLink,, and many small and medium-size ISPs, are not participating. However, other ISPs may join the program in the future.

What The Program Doesn’t Target

While the system is branded as a “Copyright Alert System,” it actually only targets people downloading infringing content from public BitTorrent trackers. Both hardcore pirates and casual infringers will be able to avoid this system. The following types of copyright infringement are not targeted at the moment:

  • Watching TV shows and movies uploaded to YouTube and other video sites by unauthorized users.
  • Downloading copyrighted content directly from “file locker”-type websites, not peer-to-peer networks.
  • Using other types of peer-to-peer networks, not BitTorrent.
  • Downloading torrents from private BitTorrent trackers.
  • Using VPNs to access public, infringing torrents.

However, the program may target other types of unauthorized downloading in the future.

What About Businesses?

Businesses on business-grade Internet connections will not be targeted by the Copyright Alert System. A business offering public Wi-Fi will not see alerts because some of its customers downloaded unauthorized material.

However, small businesses on consumer-grade Internet connections will see alerts. If a business is offering public Wi-Fi using a residential connection, it may receive copyright alerts. ISPs would advise these businesses to upgrade to more expensive connections intended for businesses.

At the moment, the system’s bark is worse than its bite. It only targets one specific type of infringing traffic and doesn’t result in very harsh penalties. However, over time, the system could be adapted to monitor subscribers’ Internet traffic for other types of infringing downloads and hand out harsher penalties.

One thing’s for sure – for people in the USA, downloading unauthorized content from public BitTorrent trackers just became an even worse idea.

Profile Photo for Chris Hoffman Chris Hoffman
Chris Hoffman is Editor-in-Chief of How-To Geek. He's written about technology for over a decade and was a PCWorld columnist for two years. Chris has written for The New York Times and Reader's Digest, been interviewed as a technology expert on TV stations like Miami's NBC 6, and had his work covered by news outlets like the BBC. Since 2011, Chris has written over 2,000 articles that have been read more than one billion times---and that's just here at How-To Geek.
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