Universities beat back RIAA subpoenas

A Massachusetts court recently ruled in favour of an attempt by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College to protect the identity of alleged file traders on their networks. The schools challenged subpoenas from the Recording Industry Association of America arguing that their request for user information had not been legally filed.

The colleges objected only on technical legal grounds charging that the RIAA had filed the subpoenas in the wrong court. The RIAA has been sending out mass subpoenas from Washington D.C. to people and organizations no matter where the recipient is located.

The RIAA can, of course, revise its request to comply with the judge's order and send subpoenas from a court local to the recipient. And the RIAA remains insistent that service providers, including colleges, are legally compelled to reveal the names of those who allegedly distribute music illegally online.

But shifting the source of the subpoenas to a local court would make it easier for ISPs and file traders to address and fight the demands of the order. It also requires that the RIAA undergo a longer and more complicated process, which could slow down its efforts to issue subponeas in such a scattershot way.

In addition, the Massachusetts ruling underscores the imperial attitude that the RIAA has taken in unleashing this campaign against file traders. The RIAA has used this one federal court in Washington, D.C. as a subpoena clearinghouse. This unusual legal process was set up by the recent federal court case against Verizon Communications, which fought the RIAA subpoenas on the grounds of privacy and due process.

Both a lower court and an appeals court rejected Verizon's arguments, and the RIAA was permitted to issue these bulk subpoenas from D.C. According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), the RIAA has filed at least 2,000 subpoenas through this court. The EFF has been encouraging ISPs to notify users when their identities are sought under subpoenas, and has created a useful online database that users can check to see if they have been named in a subpoena.

MIT and Boston College argued that they were not subject to an order from the federal court. The Massachusetts court agreed, finding that under federal rules subpoenas must be issued in a local court. The RIAA has filed separate motions with the federal court asking them to enforce the MIT and Boston College subpoenas. If the federal court finds that it has jurisdiction, there could be a conflict between the two courts.

The subpoenas are the start of what will likely be a flood of lawsuits filed against file traders this fall. But the ruling shows at least that due process concerns do apply to the privacy of Internet users. When one judge has the sense to stand up against the RIAA subpoena process, there's a chance that other judges will be willing to consider defensive arguments from the named alleged copyright thieves. Pacific Bell Internet Services, a subsidiary of SBC, has filed a more detailed challenge to the RIAA subpoenas citing due process issues. The Massachusetts ruling will likely draw even more attention to this case.

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