This week, after years of negotiating and planning, five of the largest Internet service providers in the country, in partnership with movie and music trade groups, have started implementing a new “copyright alert system.” The system—a form of internal policing, with ISPs cast as enforcers—zeroes in on Internet users who are downloading copyrighted content, chastises them, and, if that doesn’t work, punishes them for their defiance.

Customers of Cablevision, AT&T, and Time Warner might not have heard about this yet—but they will soon. Verizon and Comcast have already begun notifying their users about the program, and Comcast confirmed to CJR that on Wednesday it started sending out “a small number” of alerts of alleged copyright infringement. 

The private sector came up with this program as an anti-piracy strategy that could be implemented without any help from the government. ISPs aren’t exactly fond of peer-to-peer sharing: it takes up a huge amount of bandwidth. And trade groups are convinced that they can use it change consumer behavior.

So if you’re sloppy about downloading music or movies from a peer-to-peer network, like BitTorrent, μTorrent, Vuze or Frostwire—if you don’t mask your IP address with a VPN or similar shield—you might start hearing about it. 

The alerts start with a message that a copyright owner (likely one represented by the Motion Picture Association of America or the Recording industry Association of America) has connected allegedly improper sharing or copying of content to your IP address. If you’re a Comcast customer, for instance, your first alert will look like this:

Notices like this one aren’t actually new; some ISPs have been sending similar alerts to customers for years. What’s different about the copyright alert program is what happens if copyright holders keep tracking downloads to a particular IP address. 

This part of the program works like the penalty system in a soccer game: With each infraction, the warning gets more serious. At worst, bad behavior will get you suspended from playing the game for a little bit—as part of the fifth and sixth “alerts,” Internet service is slowed down to a crawl or the customers’ ability to browse the Web is blocked by a notice that only the ISP can disable. But you can’t be kicked out of the league. Participating ISPs say—for now—that they’ll never cut their customers off from the Internet permanently for copyright infringement.

Six strikes and you’re…

Here’s what happens before a customer receives that first alert. The participating copyright owners (they include Disney, Paramount, Sony, Fox, Warner Bros., and EMI) put together lists of content they want monitored. Those lists go to an outside group—MarkMonitor—which joins and monitors peer-to-peer networks in order to hunt down people sharing that content. There’s not a lot of public information available about this process: The Center for Copyright Information, which is overseeing the whole copyright alert program, last year released a heavily redacted report that described the system using only such vague terms as “collection mechanisms” and “scanning systems.” When MarkMonitor’s analysts find what they’re looking for, they identify the file-sharing IP address and pass it on. The ISP then matches that address to the account using it and sends the alert. 

The first and second alerts, like the one above, let the user know that someone’s paying attention. The third and fourth get more serious: Customers might be redirected to a page with a lecture on copyright law and infringement. Here’s the fourth alert for Comcast users:

Even the tone is less patient than the first alert.

The fifth and six alerts carry more serious consequences. Verizon, for instance, will dock the offender’s Internet speed to an archaic 256 kbps for two to three days. (The less-than-convincing argument that this is not a taxing punishment: “It’s faster than dial-up!”) Comcast customers will get a “persistent in-browser alert”—a message similar to the two above that won’t go away until the user calls up Comcast and has a very serious conversation about what they’ve done.

Sarah Laskow is a writer and editor in New York City. Her work has appeared in print and online in Grist, Good, The American Prospect, Salon, The New Republic, and other publications.