Verizon Communications faced tough questions from a federal judge on Friday as the telecommunications giant sought to resist being drafted as the recording industry’s copyright policeman.
Claiming that the privacy of its users and the viability of the Internet itself were at stake, Verizon argued that it should not have to kick off customers who use “peer to peer” services like Kazaa and Morpheus to download songs for free, and should not be required to monitor its users’ activities.
“We don’t want to be the policeman in this process,” Verizon attorney Eric Holder said.
Holder faced a skeptical reception from Judge John Bates, who questioned many of the company’s claims.
“You’re not really being a policeman,” Bates said.
Bates also quizzed attorneys for a recording-industry trade group who want Verizon to reveal the name of a customer who has amassed more than 600 songs, noting that they only suspect the user of violating copyrights.
Both sides expect Bates’s ruling could determine how much help record labels can expect from network providers as they pursue the online song-swappers they claim are hurting CD sales.
At issue is a 1998 digital-copyright law that protects Internet providers from legal liability in piracy cases if they cooperate with enforcement efforts.
Since the law went into effect, Internet providers have complied with nearly 100 requests to take down Web sites that contain copyrighted material.
But the advent of peer-to-peer systems like Napster has complicated the arrangement, as users bypass network-owned Web servers to search for digital music on each others’ hard drives.
The recording industry has begun to track down peer-to-peer users, hoping that lawsuits or sternly worded warnings will lead to a decline in use, and in July asked Verizon to reveal the name of one peer-to-peer user and block his ability to trade songs.
Verizon said the only way to block the material would be to cancel the user’s account, and told the trade group it should instead file a formal legal proceeding that would give the user a chance to fight back.
But a formal “John Doe” proceeding could take months, by which time the Internet provider could have erased its records, an attorney for the movie industry said.
Congress did not mention “John Doe” subpoenas when it wrote the law, Bates said, noting that they could provide a burden on the courts as well.