ACS:Law: The leaked list and the Digital Economy Act
The names of thousands of people accused of illegal file-sharing have been leaked onto the internet, along with their addresses, and in some cases the titles of adult films they're alleged to have shared and even their credit card details.
Information Commissioner Christopher Graham: 'Anyone who holds personal information has got to take their responsibilities seriously'
You may remember the hoo-hah about the Digital Economy Act which was rushed into law at the end of the last Parliament. Much of the controversy about the act surrounded measures which might see alleged file-sharers having their broadband connections temporarily suspended.
But that was only ever going to happen as the second stage of an anti-piracy drive. First, the plan is to get thousands of letters sent out by internet service providers to customers suspected of involvement in file-sharing. The idea is that these warning letters will prove a sufficient deterrent, and that there will be no need to move to more draconian action.
But the ISPs, which lobbied hard against the Digital Economy Act, are still furious about its implications. They say it's unfair that they will have to pay some of the cost of the letter-writing campaign - even though 75% will be paid by the copyright owners - and the effect on their relationship with their customers.
The ACS:Law case may provide ammunition to their case. The law firm's technique has involved trawling the internet for evidence of people who are illegally sharing files. That produces a list of IP addresses and the next stage is to get a court order to force the ISPs to hand over the actual names and addresses of the broadband customers involved.
ACS:Law - one small law firm operating on behalf of a handful of copyright owners - appears to have sent out thousands of letters to broadband users demanding compensation for its clients. I've been speaking to just one of those who found himself on the list. He is a Sky subscriber and received a demand for £1,200 from ACS:Law, along with an allegation that he had shared a couple of porn movies online.
He insists he is innocent and has refused to pay. But his anger is directed not just at the law firm but at Sky for handing over his details without telling him. The company points out that it had no choice after receiving a High Court order, and that it cannot contact customers in advance because that might pre-empt an investigation undertaken by a third party.
But the result of ACS:Law's campaign is that thousands of people are now angry not only with the law firm but with their broadband supplier. The ISPs have already estimated that when the Digital Economy Act kicks in, they will end up sending out hundreds of thousands, possibly millions of letters to their customers, with what they believe will be disastrous effects.
TalkTalk, the ISP which has been most vociferous in its opposition to the Act, has already leaped on the ACS:Law security breach as an example of what happens when you hand over customer information. Here's what TalkTalk's Andrew Heaney said in a blog post:
"It's a stark reminder of the dangers of giving out customer details to third parties in trying to combat filesharing. While we do not condone illegal filesharing, we have consistently argued for better ways of combating copyright theft. Handing over customer details to law firms to seek 'compensation', based on accusations from rightsholders, is not the answer."
Mr Heaney says TalkTalk has never handed over customer data to ACS:Law or any other legal firm. Other ISPs suggested that was because no demand had ever been made, but Mr Heaney told me that was not the case: "We're continually approached by lawyers from ACS:Law and other firms and have consistently said 'no'. We've said, 'Let's have a debate in court if you think you've a reasonable case.' None of them have ever taken us up on the offer." He went on: "I'm not going to expose my customers to letters that they would consider bullying and threatening."
TalkTalk, which is seeking judicial review of the Digital Economy Act, seems to be preparing for battle if and when it is put into effect. But others may be less eager to join in. Sky, which of course is both a content owner and an ISP, is keen to stress that it supports action against file-sharers, and may even co-operate with ACS:Law again, if and when the law firm puts its house in order.
But this week's events will certainly make all internet service providers even more aware that they face an uncomfortable period ahead when they may be forced to hand over data which could incriminate their customers.