The federal court decision in RIAA vs. Verizon on Tuesday was a very bad thing.

Legal background: the DMCA has a very unusual provision, allowing copyright owners to obtain a federal court subpoena requiring ISPs to identify users who the copyright owner accuses of copyright infringement, without the copyright owner having to file a lawsuit. The subpoena is free for the asking.

Until now, the subpoenas have been served mostly on Web sites and others who provide space to users to store material on the Web. ISPs who merely provide the “wires”, the access, however, as opposed to the storage, have contended the subpoena process does not apply to them. Until now, the copyright owners (primarily record companies, movie studios, and software producers) had held off serving them.

This was a test case. The RIAA served a subpoena on Verizon seeking information about a single individual who was sharing files online. Verizon resisted complying with the subpoena, refusing to provide the requested identifying information. The RIAA won. Once the individual is identified, he is a target for a lawsuit – or perhaps just a barrage of threatening letters from high-priced lawyers describing federal prison terms for various copyright violations.

The door is now open for the record, movie, TV, and software industries to serve subpoenas on ISPs looking for the identity of anyone who uses a file sharing program, without any effective judicial review. There may be literally thousands of subpoenas – there is no reason to suspect that the copyright owners will act with restraint. Count on them to use automated mechanisms to harvest lists of users to pursue. This will permit mass intimidation of end users, as well as putting punishing pressure on the ISPs to step in and regulate access to Internet services – literally changing the entire underlying philosophy of the Internet.

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