Swedish Data Authority Investigates Piracy Settlement Letters

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Letters being sent out to Internet account holders in Sweden accusing them of copyright infringement are under investigation by Sweden's Data Protection Authority. Since the letters demand a cash payment, they could be considered a debt collection measure. If that's indeed the case, they must comply with strict legislation.

Companies that aim to turn piracy into profit have been in existence for more than a decade but still the controversy around their practices continues.

Most, known colloquially as ‘copyright trolls’, monitor peer-to-peer networks such as BitTorrent, collecting IP addresses and other data in order to home in on a particular Internet account. From there, ISPs are sued to hand over that particular subscriber’s personal details. Once they’re obtained, the pressure begins.

At this point, trolls are in direct contact with the public, usually by letter. Their tone is almost always semi-aggressive, warning account holders that their actions are undermining entire industries. However, as if by magic, all the harm can be undone if they pay up few hundred dollars, euros, or pounds – quickly.

That’s the case in Sweden, where law firm Njord Law is representing the well-known international copyright trolls behind the movies CELL, IT, London Has Fallen, Mechanic: Resurrection, Criminal, and September of Shiraz.

“Have you, or other people with access to the aforementioned IP address, such as children living at home, viewed or tried to watch [a pirate movie] at the specified time?” Njord Law now writes in its letters to alleged pirates.

“If so, the case can be terminated by paying 4,500 SEK [$550].”

It’s clear that the companies involved are diving directly for cash. Indeed, letter recipients are told they have just two weeks to pay up or face further issues. The big question now is whether these demands are permissible under law, not necessarily from a copyright angle but due to the way they are presented to the alleged pirates.

The Swedish Data Protection Authority (Datainspektionen) is a public authority tasked with protecting the privacy of the individual in the information society. Swedish Radio reports that it has received several complaints from Swedes who have received cash demands and as a result is investigating whether the letters are legal.

As a result, the authority now has to determine whether the letters can be regarded as a debt collection measure. If so, they will have to comply with special laws and would also require special permission.

“They have not classified this as a debt collection fee, but it is not that element that is crucial. A debt collection measure is determined by whether there is any kind of pressure on the recipient to make a payment. Then there is the question of whether such pressure can be considered a debt collection measure,” says lawyer Camilla Sparr.

Of course, the notion that the letters exist for the purposes of collecting a debt is rejected by Njord Law. Lawyer Jeppe Brogaard Clausen says that his company has had no problems in this respect in other jurisdictions.

“We have encountered the same issue in Denmark and Finland and it was judged by the authorities that there is no talk about a debt collection letter,” Clausen told SR.

A lot hinges on the investigation of the Data Protection Authority. Njord Law has already obtained permission to find out the identities behind tens of thousands of IP addresses, including a single batch where 25,000 customers of ISP Telia were targeted.

At least 5,000 letters demanding payment have been sent out already and another 5,000 are lined up for the next few months. Clausen says their purpose is to change Swedes’ attitude towards illegal file sharing but there’s a broad belief that they’re part of a global network of companies whose aims are to generate profit from piracy.

But while the Data Protection Authority does its work, there is plenty of advice for letter recipients who don’t want to cave into demands for cash. Last month, Copyright Professor Sanna Wolk advised them to ignore the letters entirely.

“Do not pay. You do not even have to answer it,” Wolk told people receiving a letter.

“In the end, it’s the court that will decide whether you have to pay or not. We have seen this type of letter in the past, and only very few times those in charge of the claims have taken it to court.”

Of course, should copyright holders actually take a matter to court, then recipients must contest the claim since failure to do so could result in a default judgment. This means they lose the case without even having had the opportunity to mount a defense.

Importantly, one such defense could be that the individual didn’t carry out the offense, perhaps because their WiFi isn’t password protected or that they share their account with others.

“Someone who has an open network cannot be held responsible for copyright violations – such as downloading movies – if they provide others with access to their internet connection. This has been decided in a European Court ruling last year,” Wolk noted.

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