A federal judge rejected a constitutional challenge Thursday by Verizon Communications Inc., which is trying to avoid turning over the names of two of its Internet subscribers suspected of illegally offering free music for downloading.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates, who ruled against Verizon in January in the same case, determined that First Amendment protections concerning anonymous expression do not conflict with the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
The law permits music companies to force Internet providers to turn over the names of suspected music pirates upon subpoena from any U.S. District Court clerk’s office, without a judge’s signature required.
Critics of the procedure contend judges ought to be more directly involved, given the potential privacy issues involved when a corporation is asked to reveal personal information about customers over an allegation of wrongdoing.
Bates also refused to stay his earlier ruling against Verizon until an appeals court considers the case, granting it only two weeks to seek such protection. Barring a reversal, Verizon must reveal the names of the subscribers to the Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the largest music labels.
The latest rulings mean consumers using dozens of popular Internet file-sharing programs can more easily be identified and tracked by copyright owners. Even for consumers hiding behind hard-to-decipher aliases, that could result in warning letters, civil lawsuits or even criminal prosecution.
“If users of pirate peer-to-peer sites don’t want to be identified, they should not break the law by illegally distributing music,” said Cary Sherman, president of RIAA.
Verizon said the ruling undermined subscribers’ privacy.
“Verizon is going to continue to use every legal means available to protect the privacy of our subscribers and immediately seek a stay,” said Verizon’s associate general counsel, Sarah B. Deutsch. She said the ruling “exposes anyone who uses the Internet to a host of scam artists, crooks and stalkers.”
The RIAA had sought the user’s identity with a subpoena approved under the copyright act. Bates acknowledged that fear of being identified under the law “could discourage some Internet users from otherwise protected activity,” and that some copyright owners could abuse the law to obtain personal information from innocent users. But that was insufficient to throw out the law, partly because there has been no evidence of such practices during the past five years.
“There is nothing in the record to indicate that the… subpoena authority has been used for stalking or other fraudulent purposes,” the judge wrote.
Bates dismissed arguments that the legal debate posed any “grave or formidable constitutional problem” and said that the law “hardly amounts to a real or substantial threat to protected expression.”
The judge said the 1998 law contains “adequate safeguards,” such as requiring a sworn declaration from a copyright owner that any information sought from Internet providers will only be used to protect their own copyrighted materials.
The entertainment industry traditionally has fought illegal trading by suing companies that operated file-sharing networks. But such networks have become increasingly decentralized, allowing users to trade from computer to computer without a service like Napster’s.
In response, the industry has increasingly worked to trace users individually, either threatening them into shutting down their collections or persuading Internet providers to pull the plug. It also has resorted to seeding networks with fake files and clogging network connections to frustrate people looking for free music.