Lord Lucas Scalds UK ISP Internet Piracy Threat Letters in Key Debate - ISPreview UK
The Conservative peer Lord Lucas has told a House of Lords debate on the new ‘Intellectual Property (Unjustified Threats) Bill‘ that copyright owners who attempt to bully broadband ISP subscribers by demanding money to settle suspected cases of Internet piracy are “villains” that “abuse the system” and must be tackled.

A number of organisations send such letters (e.g. GoldenEye, TCYK LLC and Mircom) and they usually do so on behalf of law firms, who themselves are often acting on behalf of the copyright owner. Law firms use to do this themselves, but that was before the Solicitors Regulatory Authority (SRA) cracked down on firms like ACS Law (example) and now they prefer to hide behind other companies.

Related firms typically track the Internet Protocol (IP) addresses that people use on public P2P (BitTorrent) networks when sharing copyright files and then later submit a Norwich Pharmacal Order (NPO) to a court, which forces the associated broadband ISP to release personal details about related subscribers.

After that the aforementioned organisations will begin sending letters (aka – “Speculative Invoicing“) that ultimately demand compensation for the alleged abuse, while those who fail to pay up are often threatened with court action.

In reality such cases almost never end up in court because to do so would be expensive and those that have been attempted were failures, not least because IP address based evidence is inherently unreliable (i.e. the data may be wrongful and or fail to reflect that lots of different people can share a single Internet connection, especially if you run an open WiFi network).

Unfortunately many innocent people and businesses have been caught up in some of these situations, such as the recent example of an 83-year-old grandmother, Patricia Drew, who was dubiously accused of sharing copyright pornography over P2P networks and that’s despite her struggling to even use a computer in the first place (here).

So far the Government’s best response to this on-going issue has been to publish a very basic piece of guidance (here), which has had precious little impact. As such it had been hoped that the new unjustified threats bill might tackle this problem, but so far its focus has been fixed on tackling bigger issues with business patents and trademarks. At least that was the case until Lord Lucas got involved in yesterday’s debate.

Lord Lucas said:

“A few years ago, I had a small role in the demise of ACS Solicitors, which were thankfully sacked by the Law Society after some long delays. They were shaking down internet users for allegedly infringing copyright on pornography and other low-grade media. Their evidence was extremely suspect but was never tested in court. ACS made its money from the threats and never took anyone to court, although it used the courts to target its victims via Norwich Pharmacal orders.

Now some careless person has dropped blood on to the ashes of ACS and the same scam is alive again with the same thin evidence. The relevant body has an IP address. It has not revealed how it got it. But, given that IP address, it is going through the same old pharmacal procedure, but this time, to avoid the vulnerability that ACS experienced, the solicitor involved — Wagner & Co — withdraws after obtaining the Norwich Pharmacal order, so it is not involved in the threat processes, which are undertaken by shell companies. There does not seem to be any redress for people threatened or for ISPs which are asked to comply with Norwich Pharmacal orders.

If anybody comes across the names of Hatton and Berkeley, Ranger Bay, Golden Eye International, Mircom International, TCYK—all of them well known in the correspondence about what is going on—I urge them to put this thing in the bin. The current scammers are not pursuing anyone: they are just after threats and extortion and shaking people down. If you really feel you need to talk to a solicitor, there is a firm called Lawdit which has hundreds of these cases on its books and is consolidating them.

I applaud the Government for helping our businesses avoid unjustified threats but I would like to know what they intend to do to help the granny in the Clapham nursing home who is being threatened by their smaller, nastier cousins with allegations that she has been downloading pornography illegally. Surely it is not acceptable.”

Lucas suggested that one partial remedy could be for citizens and those acting on their behalf to also be allowed to send a “sue or desist” letter, which would make any further threats short of action liable to penalty. Mind you this will do little to remove the threatening culture of such letters because people may not wish to feel as if they’re encouraging direct legal action to occur.

In the end Lucas encouraged the Government to look “at what is happening at a lower level and consider going further than they have in the Bill,” although it remains to be seen if such action is taken.

Meanwhile if you know or believe yourself to be innocent of such an allegation then it’s best to discuss the matter with Citizens Advice before responding (just binning the letter as Lord Lucas suggests may still carry a risk) and read the Speculative Invoicing Handbook. Likewise if you want a solicitors help then Michael Coyle from Lawdit often assists.