ISPs set to fight future IP data disclosure in the UK

On the back of the ACS:Law debacle, there has been a lot of interest in the way in which firms like ACS:Law and Davenport Lyons obtained customer information from internet service providers linking IP addresses to broadband account holders. The information was obtained in English courts through what is known as a Norwich Pharmacal order (NPO, named after the case in which it was first established). This order allows a potential claimant to ask for a third party to disclose the identity of an unidentified defendant.

In the case of ACS:Law, they sought NPOs against several UK ISPs (forgive the gratuitous use of acronyms in that sentence). Only Virgin Media and TalkTalk fought the orders, and the rest went unopposed. As with any other instance, ACS:Law refused to pursue matters further after the first hint of opposition. The ACS:Law email leak has had the effect that it has certainly left TalkTalk and Virgin looking like the victors in this whole affair. TalkTalk’s Andrew Heaney has been an outspoken opposer of the Digital Economy Act, and he has been adamant about the danger of disclosing user information through NPOs. He comments:

“Tracking down illegal filesharers is complex and the current approach isn’t working. The first problem is around detection: if you can only see what’s being downloaded at each connection, how do you know which of the several users has actually infringed copyright?

Secondly, we’ve demonstrated before how it’s possible for connections to be hacked by serial filesharers. Again, this can result in false accusations being made against subscribers and is the key reason why we’ve refused to hand over our customers’ details to ACS:Law or any other law firm working in this way.”

The case has moved this week, as another firm pledged to seek to pursue individual infringers. Law firm Gallant Macmillan went to court today to seek a Norwich Pharmacal Order against British Telecom, in which they were seeking to obtain details of customers matching IP addresses of BT users allegedly sharing Ministry of Sound music. Funnily enough, Anonymous targeted MoS and Gallant Macmillan with denial-of-service attacks in their operation Payback over the weekend, and at the time of writing the Ministry of Sound website was still down.

Simon Bradshaw from Queen Mary University attended today’s hearing, and he has reported on Twitter and to an ORG list that BT has decided to oppose (or to be seen to oppose) the NPO. Simon comments that the mood in the court was informed by what happened last week, and that the hearing was adjourned until January 12 so that the parties could provide Chief Master Winegarten, the Chancery official, with proper technical evidence. Hopefully Simon will provide a full report in the next days, which will be linked to as soon as I see it, so stay tuned. (ETA: here are Simon’s notes).

In other words, the rules have changed, no longer will NPOs go through court unopposed.

I know I was rather sceptical of Anonymous last week, but if everything else remains the same, this one single outcome is a tremendously positive thing, so they get a partial thanks from yours truly. I still do not believe in vigilante justice, but I am willing to grant them a Batman benefit of the doubt. Not like they care what the likes of me think, but some good might come out of this.