ISP Must Unmask Alleged Pirates But Rightsholders Can’t ‘Harass’ Them

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Internet provider Frontier Communications must share the personal details of subscribers with movie and music companies, as part of two ongoing piracy liability lawsuits. The ISP previously redacted the sensitive information, citing privacy concerns, but the court finds that, with proper safeguards, the interests of copyright holders weigh stronger.

pirate-flagIn recent years, music and movie companies have filed several lawsuits against U.S. Internet providers, for failing to take action against pirating subscribers.

One of the main allegations is that ISPs fail to terminate the accounts of repeat infringers in ‘appropriate circumstances’, as the DMCA requires.

These lawsuits have resulted in multi-million dollar judgments against Cox and Grande. Meanwhile, more companies are at risk too, including Frontier Communications, which emerged from bankruptcy three years ago.

Frontier vs. Movie and Music Companies

Frontier is fighting not one, but two legal battles. After the company was sued by several prominent record labels including UMG, Sony Music and Warner Music, a group of independent film companies filed a similar lawsuit.

Both cases have progressed slowly and, after the court denied Frontier’s motions to dismiss, the parties are still conducting discovery.

Among other things, the Internet providers shared hundreds of thousands of emails and DMCA notices with plaintiffs, as well as a large database relating to Frontier customers who have received these notices.

The music and movie companies requested this information in part to back up their claims that the ISP’s customers directly infringed their works. However, the shared information wasn’t sufficient. As it turns out, Frontier redacted the personal details of subscribers, making it impossible to link customers to infringement notices.

The movie companies previously challenged this decision and while Frontier shared some details, the issue remained. This was purportedly one of the reasons why the movie companies sought other means to gather evidence for this case, including their failed attempt to identify Reddit users who referenced the ISP’s piracy policies online.

In the Reddit case, the court stressed that the rightsholders had a more straightforward way to get this evidence, by reaching out to Frontier subscribers. However, that would require the ISP has to share the personal information of its subscribers.

At a hearing late last month, the record labels and movie companies requested Frontier to unredact the personal information in their disclosures. Frontier was reluctant to do so, citing federal and state privacy laws, but a court order could change that.

Frontier Must Disclose Customer Identities

Following the hearing, the court concluded that rightsholders have a valid interest in unmasking the Frontier subscribers. As such, it ordered the ISP to disclose the personal details of the allegedly infringing subscribers.

The court makes it clear, however, that no party is allowed to harass the subscribers in question. In addition, it also clarified that the personal information can only be used for the pending lawsuits, nothing else.

In addition to the MariaDB database with DMCA notice information, personal details must also be unredacted in other documents, including support emails.

“Frontier shall, within 3 days of the Effective Date and consistent with the confidentiality designation below, re-produce without redacting PII the following previously produced Documents:”

“(i) all communications between Frontier and its account holders related to Digital Millennium Copyright Act (“DMCA”) notices; (ii) all internal Frontier Documents; and (iii) the MariaDB database. “

Restrictions and Safeguards

The unredacted information should help the movie and music companies to link the pirating IP-addresses to subscribers, which is required to establish the direct infringement claim to hold Frontier liable.

While the plaintiffs get access to the personal information, the court has set up some restrictions to guarantee the privacy of subscribers, as far as that’s possible. For example, the data is classified as “highly confidential” and should be destroyed 30 days after the proceedings conclude.

As mentioned earlier, rightsholders are not allowed to “harass” the customers either. In addition, the plaintiffs are only allowed to contact up to 50 Frontier subscribers each. If they have to contact more, a follow-up court order is required.

This week’s order doesn’t apply to the information that Frontier previously shared with the movie companies. It doesn’t immediately affect the filmmakers’ renewed attempt to uncover the identities of Redditors, although that seems less vital now.

A copy of the stipulation and order, issued by the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the Southern District of New York, is available here (pdf)


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