BT seeks moratorium on internet piracy cases

Royal Courts of Justice Lawyers want the details of customers at three ISPs

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BT is seeking a moratorium on legal applications to obtain details of its customers who are alleged to have illegally shared files online.

The firm outlined its stance following a high-profile data breach at London law firm ACS:Law last week.

The leak saw thousands of customers' details from various ISPs - including BT-owned PlusNet - published online.

BT said that it wanted a temporary halt on all new and existing applications until a "test case" could be heard.

It was originally to be heard today but was adjourned until 11 January 2011 following a hearing at London's High Court.

"This will be a test case for ISPs," a legal representative of BT told BBC News.

The case involves lawyers from law firm Gallant Macmillan, who are seeking a court order to obtain the names and addresses of a "large number" of broadband users from PlusNet, BSkyB and Be Internet suspected of illegally downloading and sharing music from the nightclub and record label Ministry of Sound.

BSKyB were not represented at today's hearing.

How are these lists compiled?

  • Anti-piracy firms partner with music and film rights holders
  • Firm uses software to track file-sharing sites and identifies the IP (internet protocol) addresses of the net connections used to share clients' content
  • Armed with the list of IP addresses, law firms can apply for a court order to obtain the physical address of suspected file-sharers from ISPs whose network has been used. BT seeks to put a temporary halt on this process
  • Law firms compile their own lists cross-referencing the content that is alleged to have been shared with the personal details of ISP customers
  • A letter is sent to the alleged pirate, asking them to either pay a one-off fee or face court
  • Many targeted by firms such as ACS:Law contend that IP addresses can be spoofed
  • Others say that the IP address does not identify a PC, merely a connection, which could be shared between many people, hijacked or used without the owner's knowledge if not secured

BT lawyers asked for the adjournment, saying that the firm needed to see details of the security system that would be used to store its customers' data before it could comply with any order.

PlusNet faced criticism last week after it emerged that it had sent the personal details of more than 500 customers in an unencrypted document to ACS:Law, following a court order. Experts have said it could put BT in breach of the Data Protection Act.

The firm admitted that it had asked for the adjournment partly as a response to the leaks.

However, it also said that it had gradually been "ramping up its requirements" of firms trying to obtain its customers' details.

"The incident involving the ACS:Law data leak has further damaged people's confidence in the current process," a spokesman said.

"We 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.

"We have not simply consented to these orders in the past, we have asked for stricter terms as public concern has risen. The data leak with ACS:Law prompted us to take further action today."

The leak occurred after users of the notorious message board 4chan launched a targeted "denial of service" on ACS:Law for its anti-piracy activities.

The company's e-mail database and a series of internal documents were published online in the process of restoring the website.

Complaints

The attack was the latest in a series of assaults aimed at crippling the websites of firms and organisations involved in anti-piracy efforts, known as Operation Payback.

Over the weekend, the website of the Ministry of Sound was taken offline by the group.

ACS:Law has made a business out of sending thousands of letters to alleged net pirates, asking them to pay compensation of about £300 per infringement or face court.

The BBC has been contacted by a number of people saying they were wrongly accused by the firm. UK consumer group Which? also says it has also received a number of complaints.

ACS:Law is under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority over its role in sending letters to alleged pirates.

No case has ever come to court.

Lawyers from Gallant Macmillan distanced themselves from ACS:Law and the data breaches. They said they intended to press ahead with their "legitimate attempts to enforce the legitimate rights" of the Ministry of Sound against alleged file-sharers.

A representative of the firm told the hearing that it "fully intends to litigate" against alleged file-sharers if it is granted the court order forcing BT and other ISPs to hand over the details of their customers.

It also asked for some details of the January case to be conducted in private to protect details of the security measures used to protect customer details, and because any revelations would "only give traction to the kind of attacks recently seen [on ACS:Law]".

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