Senate committee to address ISP subpoenas

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has promised to hold hearings on a part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allows copyright holders to subpoena the names of alleged copyright violators from Internet service providers without even having to talk to a judge.

The chairman of the U.S. Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has promised to hold hearings on a part of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) that allows copyright holders to subpoena the names of alleged copyright violators from ISPs without even having to talk to a judge.

Comittee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) promised hearings on the issue Thursday after Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) withdrew an amendment related to the DMCA's subpoena provision, tacked onto a bill reauthorizing the powers of the Federal Trade Commission.

Brownback's amendment would have required such subpoenas to be issued only when the copyright holder is engaged in a pending civil lawsuit or other court action. Right now, the DMCA allows copyright owners to subpoena personal information of suspected copyright violators through an order issued by a court clerk.

Earlier this month, Verizon Internet Services was forced by a court to turn over the names of four suspected music downloaders to the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). In April, after Verizon challenged the DMCA's subpoena in court, a U.S. District Court judge upheld the legality of the administrative subpoenas, which are issued by the clerk of a court at the request of a copyright holder.

The RIAA has argued that these administrative subpoenas are a good tool in helping it combat the continuing problem of unauthorized music downloads through peer-to-peer services. Critics, including Verizon, said the DMCA makes it too easy for anyone claiming to be a copyright holder to claim a suspected violator and get the name, address and phone number of an ISP subscriber. The DMCA provision could be misused by stalkers or kidnappers to track down the names and addresses of victims, Verizon has argued.

Brownback, in the Senate Commerce Committee session, said no judicial checks and balances exist in the current law. "This is not about piracy, this is about privacy," Brownback said. "I support the protection of copyright, but this is a big privacy issue."

Brownback withdrew his amendment, saying senators may need to study the issue more. But he urged McCain to hold hearings on the DMCA subpoena process.

"Nothing in this quasi-subpoena process prevents someone other than digital media owners -- you could be a stalker, you could be a telemarketer or a spammer -- from using this quasi-subpoena process to (gain information) on an Internet subscriber, including our children," Brownback said. "I have no interest in us shielding those who have committed piracy. My concern ... is the clear threat of unintended consequences."

The RIAA issued a written statement on Brownback's remarks, saying it looks forward to a committee hearing about the "numerous reported security and privacy holes in peer-to-peer networks." The RIAA noted that the federal judge in the Verizon case questioned how a peer-to-peer user could expect privacy when that person is opening his computer to permit others to download his files.

"In addition, we think it will be useful for the committee to hear directly about the numerous legal safeguards the DMCA information subpoena process affords ISPs and consumers," the RIAA's statement added.

Join the Network World communities on Facebook and LinkedIn to comment on topics that are top of mind.

Copyright © 2003 IDG Communications, Inc.