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Judge: IP addresses simply don’t identify the people behind the computers.

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from – Several recent government raids on computer users suspected of sharing child porn online hit the wrong targets. Instead of getting the perpetrators, some of the raids nabbed a neighbor with an open WiFi network instead. One obvious takeaway: letting total strangers use your Internet connection for any purpose comes with some risk. But there’s another lesson: IP addresses simply don’t identify the people behind the computers.

One federal judge in Illinois has already taken the lesson to heart and applied it to the P2P file-sharing case before him. John Steele [pictured], the main lawyer in Illinois who has brought such cases, recently came up before judge Harold Baker and tried his standard tactic: requesting expedited discovery so that he could turn his list of allegedly infringing IP addresses into names. (Steele has also attempted to lodge the case as a “reverse class action” in which unknown copyright infringers of a pornographic film are named as a “class” to avoid problems of jurisdiction.)

Judge Baker was having none of it, rejecting Steele’s request on two occasions. Steele then sought leave to take the matter to an appeals court; Baker last week rebuffed him once more (PDF), saying it was totally improper to do expedited discovery against anonymous individuals with no representation of their own before the court.

“Could expedited discovery be used to wrest quick settlement, even from people who have done nothing wrong?” asked Baker. “The embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether [plaintiff porn company] VPR has competent evidence to prove its case.”

Baker then went on to cite a recent mistaken child porn raid, where an IP address was turned into a name—but the named person hadn’t committed the crime. “The list of IP addresses attached to VPR’s complaint suggests, in at least some instances, a similar disconnect between IP subscriber and copyright infringer… The infringer might be the subscriber, someone in the subscriber’s household, a visitor with her laptop, a neighbor, or someone parked on the street at any given moment.”

Steele’s request was denied until he can name at least one specific person in the case over whom the court has personal jurisdiction—though it’s not clear he can do this at all without going to the ISPs for help. But the judge doesn’t care about Steele’s problems.

“The imprimatur of this court will not be used to advance a ‘fishing expedition by means of a perversion of the purpose and intent’ of class actions,” Judge Baker concluded.


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