SBC Fights Back over RIAA Subpoenas

After receiving nearly 200 subpoenas to turn over information about users of its Internet service, communications giant SBC has filed suit against the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), calling the subpoenas a misapplication of copyright law.

In a U.S. District Court complaint, filed by SBC’s Pacific Bell Internet Service in San Francisco, the communications company claimed the RIAA is wrongly using the subpoena powers of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA).

The RIAA rejected the complaint and reiterated its intent to use the subpoenas to seek out individuals who are allegedly engaging in copyright infringement over the Internet.

Yankee Group senior analyst Mike Goodman told TechNewsWorld that while larger Internet carriers, such as Verizon and now SBC, are the only ones to have challenged the RIAA subpoenas, none of the Internet providers involved wants to provide the names and information of its customers.

“The bottom line is that no ISP wants to be in the policing position they’ve been put into,” Goodman said.

Subpoena Onslaught

In an effort to discover the identities of peer-to-peer (P2P) file-sharing users, the RIAA has sent out an estimated 1,000 to 2,000 subpoenas to ISPs across the country.

The RIAA would not comment on the number of subpoenas served or ISPs contacted, but indicated it will continue to seek user identities through ISPs.

SBC spokesperson Joe Izbrand told TechNewsWorld that the company has received about 200 subpoenas from the RIAA in the past two weeks.

Privacy Position

SBC said it filed the complaint — which seeks a court declaration that the RIAA subpoenas are overly broad and were issued from the wrong district — to protect the privacy of its customers.

“We’re making the argument that the DMCA subpoena power is being misapplied,” Izbrand said. “Anyone can request private information of someone over the Internet [using the subpoenas]. We believe it’s a threat to the privacy rights of our customers.”

SBC said the intent of the lawsuit is to “put the issue before the appropriate court so the safety and privacy rights of customers and the interest of copyright owners can be balanced.”

Sticking with Strategy

The RIAA, meanwhile, rejected the SBC claims and stood firm on its intent to pursue the names of copyright infringers who use P2P applications and networks, including Kazaa, Grokster and Morpheus.

“We are disappointed that PacBell has chosen to fight this, unlike every other ISP, which has complied with their obligations under the law,” the RIAA said in a statement. “We had previously reached out to SBC to discuss this matter, but had been rebuked.

This “procedural gamesmanship,” the RIAA concluded, “will not ultimately change the underlying fact that when individuals engage in copyright infringement on the Internet, they are not anonymous and service providers must reveal who they are.”

Digital Dragnet

Electronic Frontier Foundation senior staff attorney Fred von Lohmann told TechNewsWorld that ISPs must respond to the subpoenas under current DMCA law. The courts recently sided with the RIAA when Verizon challenged the subpoenas, but that case has been appealed.

Von Lohmann expressed concern that Internet users, who might not be notified that their ISP has been subpoenaed, are “essentially presumed guilty until proven innocent.”

He also said the RIAA apparently is issuing more subpoenas than it actually needs for potential legal cases against Internet users.

“The dragnet is being cast much more widely than the actual lawsuit is going to be,” he noted.

How Far, How Much?

Yankee’s Goodman said the Internet file-sharing battle highlights the conflicting set of laws that cover copyright protection and privacy.

He noted that resistance to the subpoenas from ISPs likely will be limited to carriers such as Verizon and SBC – companies with the “deep pockets” to go the legal distance with the RIAA.

“I wouldn’t anticipate this triggering a slew of lawsuits,” Goodman said. “But from the RIAA side – how many cases can they run simultaneously? At what point can the RIAA continue to support its legal position? How good is winning all of it if you end up bankrupt?”

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