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Net Providers Caught in Middle Of Battle Over Music Copyright

By Seth Schiesel

The New York Times -- As the recording industry pursues its lawsuits against those it says are digital music pirates, SBC Communications has emerged as the only major Internet service provider that has so far refused to identify computer users whom the industry suspects of copyright infringement.

Since early July, major high-speed Internet providers -- including BellSouth, Comcast, EarthLink, Time Warner Cable and Verizon -- have complied with more than 1,000 subpoenas from the record industry’s lobbying arm, the Recording Industry Association of America, to turn over the names of their customers who are otherwise known only by the murky screen names and numeric Internet Protocol addresses used in cyberspace.

But SBC, the number two regional phone company and a major local telecommunications service provider in the Midwest and West, has received about 300 such subpoenas and has refused to answer any of them. It has stuck to that position even though Verizon, the biggest local phone company -- which has most of its customers along the East Coast -- lost a major lawsuit this year against the recording industry.

The contrast between SBC’s stance and that of its peers illustrates how Internet providers have been caught in the middle of the music industry’s pursuit of individual music swappers. Their range of responses underscores the complexities of the legal landscape in this new area of law, the mounting tensions between copyright enforcement and privacy, and the limits of technology in tracking down cyberspace pirates.

In the Verizon case, a federal judge in Washington ruled that the Digital Millennium Copyright Act of 1998 required the company to reveal the identities of its customers even though the industry’s subpoenas had not been individually reviewed by a judge. Oral arguments in Verizon’s appeal are to be heard on Tuesday by a federal court in Washington.

Most big Internet providers think that the original decision in the Verizon case essentially validated the subpoenas that the recording industry sent to other companies. SBC, however, has taken the offensive and filed its own lawsuit against the recording industry group in California.

“We are going to challenge every single one of these that they file until we are told that our position is wrong as a matter of law,” James D. Ellis, general counsel for SBC, said on Monday in a telephone interview.

Ever since the Telecommunications Act of 1996 remade the communications industry, SBC has been considered by far the most legally aggressive of the nation’s major communications companies. Ellis is scheduled to testify on Wednesday about the copyright subpoenas before the Senate Commerce Committee. With about 3 million high-speed data customers, SBC is the United States’ number one provider of broadband Internet access using digital subscriber line technology, which uses telephone wires.