One of my pet peeves has always been that those who legislate about technology so often have little to no understanding of it. I am very pleased to say, for a change, that it is not the case today.
Judge Harold Baker of the Central District Court of Illinois gets my admiration for his stance in a recent ruling. The decision handed down from his bench states that an Internet Protocol (IP) address does not necessarily correlate to a particular individual, and that it cannot be treated as such during legal investigations be they civil or criminal.
This is common knowledge within the tech community, as any quick search on Google will show. Jason Mick, a writer for DailyTech, states it very clearly that IP doth not a person make:
Technology professionals have long understood that IP addresses are closer to a zip code than a social security number. Multiple people locally accessing or remotely funneling through a specific hotspot can share IP addresses. In short, IP address offers little clue to a users’ true identity.
Despite this, IP addresses have been the evidence used for a number of actions ranging from Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) file sharing lawsuits to child pornography cases.
Nate Anderson, a writer for Ars Technica, notes the array of mis-steps that have already been taken in the legal arena based on mistaken notions about IP addresses:
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.’
Additionally, Ernesto, a writer for Torrent Freak, points out that one does not need to be guilty to fear damage to one’s livlihood or reputation:
‘Orin Kerr, a professor at George Washington University Law School, noted that whether you’re guilty or not, you look like a suspect. Could expedited discovery be used to wrest quick settlements, even from people who have done nothing wrong?’ Judge Baker writes.
Judge Baker further notes that ‘the embarrassment of public exposure might be too great, the legal system too daunting and expensive, for some to ask whether the plaintiff VPR has competent evidence to prove its case.’
I need hardly remind readers how true this is in the social media age. Just look at how rapidly any whiff of scandal propagates. How many media faces have found themselves on the job hunt because of a poor choice in what to tweet or share on Facebook? Hollywood and sporting figures seem especially prone to this, but one can’t help but think part of the motivation might be publicity.
How much more frightening for someone of limited resources faced with having accusations of being a pornographer levied at him? It would probably make him far more likely to accept the out-of-court settlement if offered, bypassing the court system in its entirety.
This is why the decision is laudable. It is firmly based on what the technology is and how it works. This also means that a bit of much needed balance has returned to the equation.
Chris Richardson, a writer for WebProNews, sums up:
Although this doesn’t mean copyright violators are safely hidden behind their IP address, it does mean the burden of identifying suspects falls where it should: At the feet of the accuser. If an accusing entity can’t offer anything other than an IP addresses, there’s now precedence to throw such requests out.
Hopefully, if taken to a higher court, as it almost certainly will at some point, Judge Baker’s decision will be upheld.
Source: “After botched child porn raid, judge sees the light on IP addresses,” Ars Technica, 05/03/11
Source: “U.S. Legal System Finally Figures Out IP Address != Specific Person,” DailyTech, 05/04/11
Source: “IP Addresses Do Not Equal People,”WebProNews, 05/04/11
Source: “IP-Address Is Not a Person, BitTorrent Case Judge Says,” Torrent Freak, 05/05/11
Image by hunterseakerhk / mm on Flickr, used under its Creative Commons license.
George “Loki” Williams is the community and brand manager for award wining game company Savage Mojo, Ltd. and the owner of SocialGumbo, LLC, an online consultancy specializing in Web content and online communications. Loki has produced content for clients including the Open Society Institute, National Association of Broadcasters, Kobold Press, and Kaiser Permanente. His work has been seen or written about in The New York Times, The BBC, Air America, The Gambit Weekly, and NOLA.com, among others.