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Charter Challenges RIAA

The cable operator has filed suit to block the RIAA from obtaining the identities of 150 subscribers.

Charter Communications is the first cable operator to challenge the Recording Industry Association of America's subpoena campaign, having filed motions in U.S. District Court in St. Louis during the past week seeking to block the RIAA from obtaining the identities of 150 Charter customers.

Charter's filing follows similar challenges from phone companies Verizon Communications and Pacific Bell Internet Services. All claim that the RIAA's use of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act to file the subpoenas violates the constitutional rights of their customers. The RIAA last month also subpoenaed some 261 individual file-swappers for engaging in illegal distribution of copyrighted music.

Charter executives declined to comment on the suits, but the company issued a statement indicating it had notified all of the customers in question to alert them that they'd been targeted. It cited its customer privacy policy as the primary reason it's contesting the subpoenas.

The RIAA also declined to comment beyond a written statement claiming that Charter's suit contradicted past assurances from the company that it would cooperate with the subpoenas, and that the copyright-infringement provisions of the copyright act dictate that Internet service providers must reveal the identities of customers who violate the act.

Verizon was the first ISP targeted, having received subpoenas in July 2002 seeking the identities of about 200 customers the RIAA claimed were egregious swappers of unlicensed content over file-sharing networks. After a year in which it refused to give up the names, Verizon was compelled to do so by a District Court ruling earlier this year. That decision has been appealed, and an appellate judge is deliberating. The two sides also are enmeshed in a second case over Verizon's refusal to turn over the identity of a single user who chose to take legal action to avoid having her identity handed over with the others.

Two days after Verizon and the RIAA presented arguments to the appellate judge, Verizon general counsel William Barr appeared before the Senate Commerce Committee to argue in favor of the Consumer, Schools, and Libraries Digital Rights Management Act, a bill that would require copyright owners to file a lawsuit before they could subpoena the identity of an Internet user. If passed, that law would override provisions of the DMCA, which gives any copyright owner the right to obtain subpoenas without filing a lawsuit. The DMCA has served as the foundation for the RIAA's subpoenas of ISPs, as well as its subpoena campaign against individual file-swappers.

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