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Video download site ordered to spy on users

Yes, it's really called TorrentSpy

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When the founders called the site TorrentSpy, this isn't what they had in mind. In a recent court ruling, made public last week, a federal judge ordered TorrentSpy.com to track the behavior of its own users - a means of gathering evidence in a lawsuit against the site by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). On Friday, the judge granted a stay of the order, and TorrentSpy plans to appeal.

The MPAA filed suit against TorrentSpy in February last year, accusing the BitTorrent-based site of facilitating illegal downloads of copyrighted material. The new court order requires the site to turn over server logs of user activity, including IP addresses and downloaded files. TorrentSpy already collects this data in memory, but never saves it to disk. The site says that keeping server logs would violate its privacy policy.

"We have succeeded in delaying the court order to turn on logs while we appeal it. TorrentSpy will not create logs of what you do on the site without your consent," reads an open letter from the site to its users. "We are dedicated to your privacy. We are fighting for your rights."

With the order, Judge Jacqueline Chooljian, a federal judge in the Central District of California, argues that TorrentSpy is not protected by its privacy policy. "The key detail in the order is that the site can't rely on a self-serving privacy policy as a means of avoiding its obligation to provide evidence," says Ian Ballon, a California intellectual property lawyer and the author of Ecommerce and Internet Law: Treatise With Forms.

What's more, the ruling orders TorrentSpy to "mask" the IP addresses it provides to court, so they can't be associated with particular people. "So [TorrentSpy] wouldn't be violating anyone's privacy anyway," says Todd Bonder, a new media copyright expert with the international law firm Rosenfeld, Meyer, and Susman. He expects the decision to be upheld.

If the decision is upheld, some believe it's capable of eroding end-user privacy across the Net. Before Judge Choijian's ruling, no US company has been required to log memory data and turn it over to a court as evidence.

"We think it's a very troubling ruling that goes well beyond TorrentSpy," says Fred von Lohmann, a lawyer with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a privacy watchdog. "It potentially allows any company's privacy policy to be re-written by its adversary's lawyers. It's a bad precedent to set." ®

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