Those who claim they are innocent can protest for a fee.
For the first time since a spate of aggressive and unpopular lawsuits almost a decade ago, the music and movie industries are going after internet users they accuse of swapping copyrighted files online.
But unlike the lawsuits from the mid-2000s which swept up everyone from young kids to the elderly with sometimes ruinous financial penalties and court costs the latest effort is aimed at educating casual internet pirates and convincing them to stop. There are multiple chances to make amends, and no real, legal consequences under the programme if they dont.
Theres a bunch of questions that need to be answered because there are ways that this could end up causing problems for internet users, such as the bureaucratic headache of being falsely accused, said David Sohn, general counsel for the Center for Democracy and Technology, a Washington-based civil liberties group. But he added: Theres also the potential for this to have an impact in reducing piracy in ways that dont carry a lot of collateral damage.
The Copyright Alert System was put into effect this week by the five biggest US internet service providers Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Comcast and Cablevision and the two major associations representing industry the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America.
Under the new programme, the industry will monitor peer-to-peer software services for evidence of copyrighted files being shared. Each complaint will prompt a customers internet provider to notify the customer that their internet address has been detected sharing files illegally.
Depending on the service provider, the first couple of alerts will likely be an email warning. Subsequent alerts might require a person to acknowledge receipt or review educational materials. If a final warning is ignored, a person could be subject to speed-throttling for 48 hours or another similar mitigation measure.
After five or six strikes, however, the person wont face any repercussions under the programme and is likely to be ignored. Its unclear whether such repeat offenders would be more likely at that point to face an expensive lawsuit.
The number of internet users subject to the new system is a sizeable chunk of the US population. Verizon and AT&T alone supply more than 23 million customers.
For the recording industry, which blames online piracy for contributing to a dramatic drop in profits and sales during the past decade, the new alert system is a better alternative than lawsuits. In December 2008, the Recording Industry Association of America announced it had discontinued that practice which had been deeply unpopular with the American public and would begin working with the internet providers on the alert system instead.
We think there is a positive impact of programs like this, and that they can put money in the pocket of artists and labels, said Jonathan Lamy, a spokesman for the RIAA.
The Motion Picture Association of America estimates some 29 million people have downloaded or watched unauthorised movies or TV shows online, mostly using technology such as BitTorrent, a popular peer-to-peer protocol.