Verizon Wins Critical Legal Battle to Protect Internet Users' Privacy, Free Speech Rights and Personal Safety
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WASHINGTON - As the result of a decision today by the United States Supreme Court, Verizon declared an important victory for the personal privacy, free expression rights and safety of the more than 100 million Internet users in the U. S. The court declined to review the unanimous decision of the District of Columbia Circuit Court of Appeals, which held that a wave of subpoenas seeking the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of thousands of Internet subscribers through a "rubber stamp" process was unlawful. The case is known as Recording Industry Association of America Inc. (RIAA) v. Verizon Internet Services Inc. (Verizon). The Court of Appeals decision, written by Chief Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and handed down on Dec. 19, 2003, held that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 (DMCA) did not authorize copyright holders and their agents to obtain a subpoena requiring the release of the name, address and telephone number of any Internet user based upon the filing of a one-page form with the clerk of the district court.
The D.C. Circuit's decision was hailed by legal scholars, the Internet community, and many consumer rights and public interest groups as a victory for consumer privacy and the First Amendment right to engage in anonymous speech on the Internet.
The following statement regarding the Supreme Court's decision to let the ruling of the Court of Appeals stand should be attributed to Sarah Deutsch, vice president and associate general counsel for Verizon:
"Today, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the personal privacy, First Amendment rights to free speech and free association, and the safety of every Internet user in this country. The Supreme Court's action is a victory for consumers, for the Internet and its continued growth, and it marks the end of a dangerous and illegal subpoena campaign that threatened the constitutional rights of all Americans.
"This decision means copyright holders and their representatives -- or identity thieves and stalkers posing as copyright holders - will not be allowed to obtain personal information about Internet users by simply filing a one-page form with a court clerk. The Supreme Court has now finally shut a door that was otherwise left wide open to false accusations, negligent mistakes, as well as to identity thieves and stalkers, who could use the cursory subpoena process (without any judicial supervision) to obtain the name, address, and telephone number of any Internet user in the country - without the user even knowing about it.
"This decision reaffirms the fact that a legitimate process for legal recourse already exists - the John Doe lawsuit - and that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) should follow it. We are pleased that the RIAA has already changed its copyright enforcement and business practices to conform to this recognized approach, which insures that due process is protected before an Internet user's personal information can be obtained by anyone who seeks it. The RIAA has filed thousands of 'John Doe' lawsuits since the D.C. Circuit held that the DMCA subpoena as used by the RIAA was unlawful. This John Doe process entails the filing of a civil complaint, strict judicial oversight of any discovery of personal information, a court order to implement the discovery procedure, and notice to individual Internet subscribers with an opportunity to contest the allegations of copyright infringement prior to the revelation of their personal information.
"The Supreme Court's decision to decline review bolsters Verizon's belief that the D.C. Circuit opinion is right on the law and that the DMCA was never meant to place a roving subpoena power with no judicial oversight in the hands of any private party who could claim ownership of a copyright. We now expect that other courts of appeal will follow the D.C. Circuit's lead, and that the RIAA will continue to adhere to the well-established "John Doe" lawsuit approach, which is used by every other commercial entity in the country seeking to expose civil wrongdoers who are anonymous."
ADDITIONAL BACKGROUND - This matter began in 2002 when the RIAA decided to circumvent traditional court processes and rely on a novel provision of the DMCA to strip Internet users of their anonymity and privacy and to obtain their personal information. The RIAA's test subpoena, issued by the clerk of a court, without approval by a judge, demanded that Verizon Online turn over the name and other personal information of a customer whom the RIAA accused of offering for download illegal copies of copyrighted music files stored on the customer's personal computer. Verizon refused on numerous grounds, including that the subpoena did not comply with the requirements of the DMCA, which applies only to files hosted on an Internet provider's network and not to private communications on a subscriber's home computer.
The RIAA sued Verizon in federal district court in the District of Columbia to enforce the subpoena. On Jan. 21, 2003, a trial court ruled in favor of the RIAA. Verizon immediately sought and was granted an expedited appeal at the Court of Appeals, and the case was heard on Sept. 16, 2003. In a unanimous decision, Verizon won the appeal in December 2003, with the court holding that the RIAA's interpretation of the law was wrong and its use of the subpoena process unlawful.
While Verizon vigorously supports the protection of copyrights and warns its subscribers about copyright infringement and the dangers of using peer-to-peer software, it has frequently noted that the RIAA enjoys access to numerous other legal avenues that promote copyright protection without sacrificing the safety and privacy of Internet users.