The “repeat infringer” issue remains a hot topic in U.S. courts, with ongoing lawsuits against several ISPs.
Internet provider RCN is one of the companies targeted. In 2021, the ISP was sued by several film companies, including the makers of The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard, London Has Fallen, and Hellboy.
The movie companies alleged that RCN wasn’t doing enough to stop subscribers from pirating on its network. Instead of terminating the accounts of persistent pirates, the Internet provider turned a blind eye, the companies argued.
The stakes are high in these liability lawsuits. Internet providers face damages claims reaching hundreds of millions of dollars, while tens of thousands of Internet subscribers risk having their accounts terminated.
Redditors as Evidence
The two camps are currently in the discovery phase where they gather evidence to support their arguments. In this quest, the filmmakers stumbled upon several comments from Reddit users which they believe could be useful.
A few weeks ago the movie companies obtained a subpoena asking Reddit to share the personal details of these users, including IP-address logs. The filmmakers believe that the commenters can provide evidence to show that RCN didn’t have a proper repeat infringer policy, among other things.
Reddit was unhappy with the subpoena and characterized it as overbroad. According to Reddit’s lawyers, the subpoena was more akin to a fishing expedition than regular evidence gathering. As such, Reddit only handed over the details of one user whose comment mentioned RCN, denying other ‘less relevant’ ones, citing the users’ First Amendment right to anonymous speech.
Reddit Opposes Motion to Compel
Reddit’s rejection prompted the filmmakers to file a motion to compel. They argued that the targeted comments are relevant, proportional, and may help to back up their legal arguments in court.
In court this week, Reddit filed its official response. According to the discussion platform, courts have repeatedly protected people’s First Amendment right to anonymous speech.
If a party wants to unmask users through the court, it has to meet a stringent standard, which isn’t the case here.
“That standard requires the requesting party to establish that it is an ‘exceptional case’ where a ‘compelling need’ for the discovery outweighs the users’ First Amendment rights,” Reddit’s attorneys write.
“Plaintiffs are far from meeting that strict standard here. First, they cannot overcome the Reddit users’ First Amendment rights because the users’ posts Plaintiffs have identified as the basis for this subpoena are completely irrelevant to Plaintiffs’ lawsuit.”
Irrelevant & Unneeded
Reddit writes that the targeted posts are “completely irrelevant” to the lawsuit against RCN. In fact, four of the comments don’t even mention the provider by name, and simply refer to “my provider”.
Other comments are not about piracy or are too old to be relevant, including one comment published nine years ago. A summary of these irrelevancy factors is shown in the table below, which accompanied Reddit’s objection.
Reddit further argues that the type of information the filmmakers seek can be obtained elsewhere. If the companies want to know more about RCN’s repeat infringer policy, they could get this information from the company directly, instead of targeting anonymous third parties.
“Most obviously, Plaintiffs could seek discovery directly from RCN. That would be far more efficient than taking wild guesses about which Reddit users might be RCN customers or might have engaged in copyright infringement at some point in the last decade.
“And, more importantly, it would not involve setting aside the fundamental First Amendment rights of uninvolved third parties,” Reddit adds.
The filmmakers previously argued that the Redditors didn’t seem to have any objections, as they didn’t respond in court. However, we later learned that Reddit didn’t inform the eight remaining users until after the motion to compel was submitted.
TorrentFreak spoke to one of the targeted Redditors, who wasn’t aware of the filmmakers’ request until it hit the news. This person, who wants to remain anonymous for obvious reasons, expects Reddit’s opposition to be succesful.
“My attorney and I are both under the assumption that the court will side with Reddit, and that the motion to compel will be denied,” the Redditor says, warning that the alternative will set a dangerous precedent.
“Granting the motion would set a precedent, allowing other companies to do the same. That would be a huge violation of everyone’s privacy and, in my opinion, Reddit would take action and ban the piracy subreddit.”
Whether Reddit would take such drastic action is unknown. The company informs TorrentFreak that it is committed to protecting our users’ privacy” and that it will oppose legal requests when appropriate.
At the same time, history has shown that the filmmakers don’t give up easily either. They will likely counter Reddit’s arguments, so it will eventually be up to the court to decide which party is right.
A copy of Reddit’s opposition to the motion to compel, filed at a federal court in California, is available here (pdf)