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ISP group challenges RIAA subpoenas

An Internet company trade association sends a letter to the recording industry questioning the intent behind the RIAA subpoenas aimed at song swappers.

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An Internet company trade association sent a letter to the Recording Industry Association of America, asking for information and dialogue over issues related to the subpoenas being issued for file-swappers' identities.

NetCoalition, a Washington, D.C.-based policy group that represents companies ranging from small Internet service providers to Yahoo and DoubleClick, on Monday said it is worried that ISPs are getting drawn too deeply into the RIAA's online enforcement efforts--an issue that has kept relations between copyright holders and Net service providers tense for years.

"There are understandable fears among many in the Internet community that the real purpose of this legal campaign is to achieve in court what the association has not yet been able to accomplish in Congress--to make Internet companies legally responsible for the conduct of individuals who use their systems," the group wrote in its letter. "Obviously, such a result would be an anathema to Internet companies and the millions of Americans who use this medium on a daily basis to engage in countless legitimate activities impossible in the offline world."

The letter comes after a month during which the RIAA's unprecedented campaign to track down the identities of alleged file-swappers has dominated headlines. In preparation for what could ultimately be thousands of copyright-infringement lawsuits against individual computer users, the record industry trade group has already sent close to 1,000 subpoenas seeking subscribers' identities to ISPs and colleges.

A few recipients have already fought back. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Boston College challenged the RIAA subpoenas, saying they were not filed correctly. A Massachusetts federal judge agreed last week, saying that the RIAA

California service provider Pacific Bell Internet Services, a division of giant SBC Communications, has filed a more substantive challenge to the subpoenas, including charges that the requests for information are unconstitutional.

NetCoalition is taking a somewhat more conciliatory approach--at least for now. On behalf of its members, which at least indirectly include America Online and EarthLink, it has asked for information on 18 different issues related to the subpoenas and is calling for a meeting with the RIAA to allay its members' fears.

NetCoalition's questions included the following:

• How does the RIAA identify potential infringers?

• How does the RIAA ensure that songs being offered on file-swapping networks are indeed copyrighted?

• Has the RIAA been able to obtain the needed personal information on an ISP subscriber without a subpoena?

• How will the RIAA decide to file a lawsuit based on the information gleaned from the subpoena?

• Does the RIAA believe that ISPs need to configure wireless access points--currently viewed as one way to surf and download relatively anonymously--so that they can always identify computer users?

• Will the RIAA compensate ISPs for costs resulting from the subpoenas?

The final point is a crucial one for many ISPs. The stream of subpoenas is proving expensive for some providers, and the providers should not be forced to bear that financial burden, the companies say.

"Smaller ISPs, whose limited resources are already being exhausted by legitimate law enforcement requests, simply cannot afford to underwrite legal fishing expeditions and still provide services for their subscribers," the NetCoalition letter said.

An RIAA representative said that the group would be happy to talk to ISPs.

"We welcome the opportunity to sit down with anyone in the ISP community to discuss Internet piracy and how we can work together constructively," the representative said. "We look forward to dispelling some of the gross inaccuracies contained in the letter and hope that these ISPs will help to foster the legitimate online music marketplace."

Executives from the record group have said they are still on track to file the first round of lawsuits resulting from the subpoena information in late August or early September.

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