"I am not an IP number, I am a free man!" OK, so that's not exactly what actor Patrick McGoohan said in the classic TV show, The Prisoner, but Number 6 would have agreed that people aren't numbers, and they certainly aren't their Internet Protocol (IP) addresses. And, now a U.S. District Court has ruled that an IP address is not the same thing as a person's identification.
This current decision came about because of a recent wave of copyright owners filing approximately 100,000 lawsuits against file sharers based on their IP addresses. Mind you, the organizations, such as the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) know that lawsuits don't actually stop file piracy. In a recent statement to the Commerce Department these groups and their allies wrote, "The role of lawsuits in solving the online theft problem is clearly limited "For instance, bringing clear-cut claims against major commercial infringers is not by itself a solution in the long run. These cases take years to litigate and are an enormous resource drain."
That hasn't stopped them though from suing file-sharing services, such as Lime Wire for, I kid you not, $75 trillion in damages. This recent wave of lawsuits isn't about taking a leading file-sharing service out behind the barn for a whipping. No, this recent lawsuit flood was designed to scare individual file sharers using services such as BitTorrent from sharing files.
One of their main tools, using IP addresses as unique personal identification tools, has just been ruled out in the case, VPR Internationale v. Does 1-1017. U.S. District Court Judge Harold Baker ruled that VPR, a Canadian adult film company, couldn't subpoena ISPs for the personal information connected to their subscribers' IP addresses. His logic was that just because an activity has been conducted from a specific IP-address doesn't mean that the IP address' owner has actually done anything wrong.
As Judge Baker wrote, "In this case, not a single one of the plaintiff's 1.017 potential adversaries has been identified. … Moreover, VPR ignores the fact that IP subscribers are not necessarily copyright infringers." He also said that even when the ISP does provide an IP address' subscriber information that the subscriber may not be guilty of any crime.
In his decision, Baker cited the recent example of Federal agents arresting a couple and seizing their computer, iPhones, and iPads for child porn only to find out later that it was a neighbor who had used their Wi-Fi connection to download the illegal material. This kind of situation, where someone is arrested for what's done without their knowledge or consent with their network connection, is not uncommon.
While Judge Baker's decision will make it harder for copyright owners and their organizations to take a "guilty until proven innocent" approach, there's another lesson here too. You need to secure your Wi-Fi connection. Sure, anyone piggy-backing on your Wi-Fi connection is probably just using it to check their e-mail, but there's that one time in a thousand where they may be doing some illegal and it will be you, not them, explaining to a court that it wasn't you who downloaded am illegal copy of The Hurt Locker.