Harold Baker, a judge at the Central
District Court of Illinois, has ruled that an internet protocol address
does not necessarily mean a specific person, and thus can not be treated as
such in a criminal or civil investigation.
I. IP Doth Not a Person Make
Technology professionals have long understood that IP addresses are closer to a
zip code than a social security number. Multiple people locally accessing
or remotely funneling through a specific hotspot can share IP addresses.
In short, IP address offers little clue to a users' true identity.
Yet for years the Recording Industry
Association of America (RIAA), along with its international peers, has
individuals into out of court settlements, because their IP address
was found to be sharing copyrighted materials. Some of these individuals
didn't even have access to a computer, and in at least one case, the target of
the RIAA complaint was a recently deceased elderly individual.
In court, the U.S. largely upheld IP logs as evidence in trials such as the
cases against Jammie
Thomas-Rassert and Joel Tenenbaum.
And recently, the U.S. Federal Bureau of
Investigations (FBI) and its sister agencies have been conducting
raids on suspected child pornography viewers based solely on IP logs -- with
minimal background research. In many cases these raids were later
discovered to be case of mistaken identity -- but that discovery came too late for
II. The VPR Internationale Case
Judge Baker ruled against a Canadian adult film distributor in the
case VPR Internationale v. Does 1-1017. In the case, VPR
Internationale sought court authorization to demand customer data from internet
It had collected logs of IP addresses of users' illegally sharing
its materials via bittorrent. By obtaining the subscriber information
associated with the specific account, it hoped to coerce the subscriber into a
settlement ranging from hundreds of dollars to a few thousand dollars. As
there was 100,000 IPs implicated in its request, the company stood to make a
multi-million dollar profit from the settlements.
But as it turns out Judge Baker rejected the request, pointing out that
multiple users could share an IP and requesting information would violate the
subscriber's privacy rights. He said the court was not in the business of
authorizing a "fishing expedition" at the consumers' expense.
ruling [Scribd], he writes, "Orin Kerr, a professor at George
Washington University Law School, noted that whether you’re guilty or not, you
look like a suspect. Could expedited discovery be used to wrest quick
settlements, even from people who have done nothing wrong? .. [T]he
embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too
daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether the plaintiff VPR has competent
evidence to prove its case."
III. The Road Ahead
The issue of IP addresses as evidence has hardly been laid to rest, though the
practice was dealt a major blow by the ruling.
Generally, only higher courts will rule against an existing precedent in the
U.S. So the question becomes when and if a higher court takes this issue
up, will they come to the same conclusions?
The public in the U.S. will have to wait to see whether future justice follows
the same logical, well-informed perspective of Judge Harold.
In the meantime, the ruling should prove tremendously valuable to those looking
to defend themselves against the RIAA or other threatening parties. Texas
lawyer Robert Cashman, who has represented several individuals in scuffles
regarding IP-related copyright claims, blogs,
"We may have just seen the order that may end all future John Doe
Recent legal decisions have also cast doubt on entertainment industry
organizations' claims that "making
available" equated to file-sharing.