UK Internet providers have now banded together to challenge anti-P2P law firms who try to turn thousands of IP addresses into customer names—and a London court will hear their objections to the entire process.
The ISPs were burned last month when a massive e-mail leak from the top anti-P2P firm in the UK, ACS Law, exposed their own spreadsheets of customer names matched to the pornographic films they allegedly downloaded. The revelation of this embarrassing (and unproven) behavior was compounded by the fact that several of the ISPs were taking no security precautions, instead e-mailing their Excel spreadsheets unencrypted and without passwords.
PlusNet's Chief Operation Officer Richard Fletcher apologized last week to customers. "We are investigating how we came to be sending unencrypted data as we have robust systems for managing data," he said. But the blame, in his view, lies largely elsewhere: "We are extremely angry with ACS Law for allowing this to happen."
PlusNet, along with other ISPs like BSkyB, showed up in a London court yesterday to challenge the newest "Norwich Pharmacal Order" (NRO). NROs allow companies like ACS Law and rival firm Gallant Macmillan to take their lists of allegedly infringing IP addresses to ISPs and ask for a iplookup; the orders function much like subpoenas in similar US cases.
A portion of BT's infringer list, revealed by the ACS Law leak
ISPs generally go along with NROs, but not anymore. Several of them have now asked Special Master Winegarten, the UK legal official who grants many of these NROs, to hold a detailed hearing on how the data is collected and how it is protected. Winegarten agreed yesterday, giving the ISPs three months to prepare their case for a January 2011 hearing on the matter. Until then, it appears that no new NROs related to file-sharing will be forthcoming.
PlusNet's Fletcher was at the hearing. In a post to PlusNet users, Fletcher said he was "pleased that the court has agreed to an adjournment so that our concerns can be examined by the court; this will then act as a precedent/test case for the future."
He's not opposed to rightsholders protecting their copyrights, but he does want "to ensure broadband subscribers are adequately protected so that rights holders can pursue their claims for copyright infringement without causing unnecessary worry to innocent people."
The means the January hearing may take a deep dive into the way that IP addresses are collected by P2P detection firm; the UK in particular has been flooded with complaints from people who say they are totally innocent.
Whether or not it leads to better data collection practices, ISP resistance to turning over subscriber names is sure to increase—and that could eat into the profits of the law firms engaged in what is largely a numbers game. This is bad news for Andrew Crossley and his employees at ACS Law—as his own cash flow projections show, he needs to keep pumping out the settlement letters to keep the revenue flowing in. Not being able to turn IP addresses into cash-generating leads for at least three more months can't be good for business.