Commentary

Just An Online Minute... The Suit That Might KO Online Privacy

Some civil rights advocates are worried that a pending copyright lawsuit brought by major entertainment studios against operators of the peer-to-peer site www.torrentspy.com could eviscerate online privacy.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation has now stepped into the case, arguing that if the studios get their way, people will no longer be able to browse the Web in relative anonymity.

In the lawsuit, companies including Columbia, Paramount, Twentieth Century Fox, Universal and Warner Bros., accuse the site's operators of inducing users to download pirated movies and TV shows. Last month, a federal magistrate ordered the site to turn over server log data that presumably reveal the IP addresses of visitors.

The site operators say they don't specifically amass or retain such information, other than to the extent it's temporarily available in the company computers' RAM. That detail has led to a legal fight over whether material in RAM is "stored" -- a prerequisite to obtaining the data in a civil lawsuit, according to the EFF.

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While the battle might turn on a technicality, EFF says the stakes couldn't be higher. In court papers filed late last week, the EFF argues that long-established First Amendment safeguards that guarantee people the right to speak anonymously "mean little in the online world if a discovery rule can make it impossible for services to implement privacy practices that support online anonymity."

Many search engines and Web companies collect and store users' IP addresses as a matter of course, but when companies have chosen not to do so, courts shouldn't cavalierly direct them to find ways to gather the information so it can be revealed.

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