Court – RIAA Can Unmask File-Sharers Identities With Almost No Evidence

In a crushing blow to internet rights, a court has sided with the Recording Industry Association of America’s legal strategy to unmask people’s online identities.

Note: This is an article I wrote that was published elsewhere first. It has been republished here for archival purposes

A new court recently ruled (PDF) that a user cannot stay anonymous if there is a suspicion of copyright infringement.

The ruling came about when a Gnutella user (labelled Doe 3 in the lawsuit) had been caught uploading allegedly infringing material. An investigator then looked through the entire shared point and gathered further evidence that infringing material had existed on hat shared point. The defendant argued that privacy rights blocked the RIAAs ability to obtain his personal information needed to drag him through court. The defendant argued that the RIAA must have downloaded the material and listened to verify that the content was, indeed, infringing. The defendant also used a fair use defence. Unfortunately, the appeals court decided that the RIAA can obtain that persons personal information in spite of these arguments.

From the court paper:

Doe 3 Principally argues that the Complaint does not state a claim sufficient to overcome is First Ammendment privelege of anonymity. He also pursues his contentions that his motion to quash was improperly referred to the magistrate judge and that the district court thus erred by not reviewing the magistrate’s judge’s decision de novo. We find no merit in Doe 3’s contention.

In short, what this means is that a file name and a time stamp is sufficient to unmask a file-sharers identity in the US. The files could be fake and it would make no difference.

One lesson can be found in this – that file-sharers need to make sure that the ability to browse a shared point be disabled. Clients like Shareaza have had this ability to browse shared directories on by default while clients like eMule disable this by default.

The real question now in the US legal system is when can anonymity be allowed in the first place? It seems evident here that when anonymity is wanted and a corporate entity comes knocking, that right pretty much vanishes. Another thing I noticed was the lack of question against the practises of investigating an alleged copyright infringer. There have been issues in the past where questions were raised about an investigators legal ability ot investigate file-sharers in the first place with respect to wiretapping laws as well as the question of whether the investigator was a legally licensed investigator. That doesn’t appear to be clear in this case.

It’s unlikely that this court ruling will change much in the file-sharing world because file-sharing is growing more and more sophisticated with some networks having the ability to encrypt traffic and add in a layer of anonymity. The only people this will really affect are those that hardly know what they are doing and it’s not often they are even aware of what is going on in the legal system with respect to file-sharing.

Still, it is disturbing how much evidence (or lack thereof) is required anymore to unmask anyones identities online these days. In this case, a mere allegation is needed now in the US with a mere file name (file names are the most often faked pieces of information on an open file-sharing network) – whether or not that evidence is accurate is beside the point.

Drew Wilson on Twitter: @icecube85 and Google+.

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