Updated at 5:05 p.m. PDT to include explanation of RIAA's graduated response, quotes from RIAA, as well as information about how some ISPs had already implemented their own type of graduated response.
Jim Cicconi, a senior executive vice president at AT&T, says much has been written about his company's relationship with the music industry and some of it is flatly untrue.
This much at least Cicconi wants customers to understand: "AT&T is not going to suspend or terminate anyone's policy without a court order."
On Tuesday, Cicconi told attendees of the Leadership Music Digital Summit that the ISP has begun issuing warning notices to people accused of pirating music by the Recording Industry Association of America. The RIAA, the trade group representing the four largest music labels, said in December that it had received cooperation from some large Internet service providers. CNET reported Wednesday that besides AT&T, Comcast and Cox Communications were also working with the music industry.
There has been some confusion about what the RIAA's graduated response program involves. The program could include suspension or termination of service for repeat offenders. It's up to the ISP to decide. But there are also other forms of escalating responses, such as the sending of multiple letters. Some of the notices could take a stronger tone or perhaps the ISP might follow up with a phone call.
Ideally for the the RIAA, the graduated response would culminate in a temporary suspension of the account for chronic offenders. Some ISPs have balked at that step, but the RIAA is still encouraged by discussions it's had with the ISPs so far.
"We're pleased to be in constructive discussions with several ISPs," said an RIAA spokesman. "We're making important progress, and doing so in a manner consistent with everyone's respective priorities. We're grateful that some of the industry's leading executives came to Nashville and talked through these important issues."
CNET News reported Tuesday evening that Cicconi said AT&T had begun issuing warning notices to people accused of pirating music by the RIAA. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 has mandated that ISPs forward those letters to people accused of violating copyright. But AT&T has begun sending its own "cover letter" along with the RIAA's cease and desist notice, according to a company representative. Cicconi confirmed on Wednesday that those letters began going out last week. CNET also reported that in the notices sent to customers was language informing them that the company had the right to terminate service. Cicconi again confirmed that, but said the clause wasn't much more than legal boilerplate.
"It's a standard part of everybody's terms of service," Cicconi said. "If somebody is engaging in illegal activity, it basically gives us the right to do it...We're not a finder of fact and under no circumstances would we ever suspend or terminate service based on an allegation from a third party. We're just simply reminding people that they can't engage in illegal activity."
Cicconi said the company began testing this kind of "forward noticing" late last year and even experimented with sending certified letters. Cicconi said the notices worked. The company saw very few repeat offenders.
The RIAA is encouraging ISPs to strengthen their responses to piracy. Some ISPs, such as Cox, says it had already implemented a policy very similar to what the RIAA is asking for.
Comcast said Wednesday afternoon that it hasn't changed its policy. An executive who spoke at the same conference as Cicconi told the audience that the company has sent 2 million notices on behalf of content owners. A company representative said the company has no plans to test "a so-called 'three-strikes-and-you're-out' policy."
But music industry sources told CNET that Comcast has agreed to cooperate with the RIAA in other ways.
But what happens to chronic offenders? Cicconi said that his company will only send notices and that if a content owner wants more done, they need to see a judge.
"What we do is send notices and keep track of violations and IP addresses," Cicconi said. "It's our view that any stronger action has got to rest with the copyright owner...That's what the courts are there for."
Cicconi raises some important questions. How many ISPs are willing to cut off a customer's Internet connection without a court order, and how effective is the RIAA's graduated response program without one?
Note to readers: Have you received a warning letter from AT&T or another ISP? If so, e-mail me by clicking on the link in my bio below. Please include your contact information. I won't reveal your name in any story if that's what you prefer.