Verizon Asks Federal Court To Protect Subscriber Privacy

Carrier asks judge to halt enforcement of ruling that would compel it to identify a subscriber who record companies claim was illegally sharing music.

InformationWeek Staff, Contributor

January 30, 2003

4 Min Read

Verizon Communications Inc. asked a federal court Thursday to halt enforcement of a ruling in which the company was ordered to identify a subscriber who record companies claim was illegally sharing music.

At a news conference in Washington, John Thorne, Verizon's senior VP and deputy general counsel, said the request for a stay was filed with U.S. District Court Judge John Bates, who issued the original ruling.

Verizon wants to avoid turning over the subscriber's identity while it pursues an appeal, which Thorne says the company would file Thursday.

"We're very afraid that if we turn over the subscriber's name, the harm will be done to the subscriber and the privacy with remaining anonymous on the Internet will be breached. This will be the beginning of a very bad process," Thorne says.

Verizon, which has the support of many other companies that provide Internet services, objects to the broad rights given to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group that represents record companies, at the expense of consumer protections. The court's interpretation of a provision of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act passed by Congress in 1998 gives companies or anyone else the right to demand the name, address, and phone number of a subscriber without presenting evidence of a copyright violation, Thorne says.

In lawsuits or criminal cases, a plaintiff or police must convince a judge to issue a subpoena or search warrant. But in the Verizon ruling, a party only needs to file a court form saying it has a "good faith" belief that there's a copyright violation and a clerk will automatically issue a subpoena, Thorne says. Without stronger legal protection, consumers cannot be assured of any privacy on the Internet.

"We're going to use every legal means available to protect the privacy of our subscribers," he says.

Record companies have used electronic "robots" to scour file-swapping networks in search of suspected copyright violators' IP address--a string of numbers assigned to a person logging on to the Internet. Under the ruling, companies can use this method, which Thorne claims is highly unreliable in obtaining subpoenas.

For example, a robot from a "bounty hunter" hired by Warner Bros. discovered a "Harry Potter" file that ended up being a child's book report on the famed wizard-in-training instead of the movie, Thorne said. Nevertheless, the company working for Warner Bros. sent Verizon a letter requesting that it disconnect the subscriber. While the incident occurred a year ago, it could have been used to obtain a subpoena under the recent ruling, Thorne says.

He also says the RIAA asked Verizon to allow it to send robots into its subscriber database in search of copyright violators. Verizon refused. "The average consumer is not a criminal, as the RIAA assumes," Thorne says.

In addition to failing to protect consumers' privacy, the ruling opens the door to abuse by porn and gambling sites, marketers, terrorists, con artists, or anyone else seeking a person's identification. Without tighter court supervision, subpoenas would be easy to obtain by fraudulently contending there's a copyright violation.

"I've never seen any provision like this," says Peter Swire, former chief counselor for privacy in the U.S. Office of Management and Budget. "There's no due process under the provision before your identity is revealed."

Swire joined Thorne at the news conference, along with Mark Cooper of the Consumer Federation of America, which is supporting Verizon's appeal.

All three called on Congress to review the Digital Millennium Copyright Act for changes that will bring its provisions up to date with how the Internet is used today. Unlike five years ago, an estimated 63 million Americans use the Internet to download a variety of recordings.

And they're not all college kids. Market researcher Ipsos-Reid estimates that a third are over the age of 35. "The world has changed since '98," he says, "and I guarantee you if the DMCA was before Congress today, it would not get by without a great deal more serious examination."

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