According to a recent announcement from Verizon Communications Company, the company will begin issuing “copyright notices” to customers accused of illegally downloading copyrighted material from the Internet. The notices will be sent on behalf of the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and will be delivered by email or automated voice messaging. The notice, which other ISPs have also forwarded from the RIAA to customers upon the RIAA’s request, is expected to inform customers that they have been accused of illegal music sharing and advise them to delete the music they distribute.

Verizon’s announcement regarding the notices cautions that “customers who receive multiple notices from Verizon risk having their Internet service interrupted or turned off and serious legal consequences if the copyright owner decides to sue over the alleged infringement.” Asking ISPs to forward such notices to users is part of a new strategy to combat music piracy adopted by the RIAA after the organization decided a year ago to stop bringing lawsuits against individuals accused of file sharing.

The prospect of an Internet service provider passing on notices that a user has been accused of illegal file sharing raises the question of whether the customer’s privacy is being violated–either by the RIAA’s investigation itself or the ISP’s involvement in passing on the notice. Verizon’s announcement does not state how the RIAA tracks down an anonymous online activity with a particular Internet user’s account. In the past, Verizon has refused to supply the RIAA with subscriber information, arguing that such actions would give the RIAA “complete access to private subscriber information without the due process protections afforded by the courts,” and challenged the argument that Verizon was required to provide such information under the Digital Millenium Copyright Act. The D.C. Circuit ruled in Verizon’s favor on this issue in 2003. In a statement issued this week by a Verizon spokesman, the company says it continues to recognize the importance of protecting user privacy, but that without the enforcement of copyright rights, “intellectual property won’t be generated at all.” It is unclear what motivated Verizon, the second-largest phone company in the U.S., to acquiesce to the RIAA’s demands at this time, and it will be interesting to see how Verizon customers react to such notices and whether they choose to challenge Verizon’s actions in court.

Rachel Friedman

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