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Should Your IP Address Be Private?

January 29, 2008

The European Union has just ruled that Spain's Telefonica SA doesn't have to hand over the identities of file sharers on its networks . At least, not simply because the allegedly aggrieved party asks for such information.


The case involves Promusicae, a group representing film and music producers, who had asked for the names and addresses of KaZaA users on Spanish telecom Telefonica SA's network who it believed were sharing copyrighted works. Telefonica SA essentially responded by saying "Nuh-uh. We only have to do that if it's a criminal prosecution or a matter of national security ." Promusicae said "We'll see you in court."

The Spanish courts passed it up the chain to the EU's highest court, which has sided with Telefonica SA.

Central to this whole mess is the question of how private one's IP address should be. Well, let's clarify: not how private one's IP address should be, but how private the link between one's IP address and one's personally identifying details should be. Most of us go around with our IP addresses hanging out for all to see. Few people bother to use an anonymizing proxy for simple web browsing or file sharing.

So how sacred should we make this identifying link? My instinct is that it should be very private, right up to the point where you commit a crime. Yet even this maxim represents a simplification of the issue. Who gets to determine when you've committed a crime? Surely not third parties who have a profit motive, or some even less noble motive to stop you from doing what you're doing. I'm not being anti-capitalist here—I believe in the right to profit from intellectual property. But the question of whether or not someone has committed a crime, and therefore forfeited the right to privacy, can not, and must not, be left in the hands of those responsible to no one but their own shareholders.

Even in the hands of governmental powers, this power is abused. But at least there is some semblance of responsibility to the general public when public officials must make these determinations. You can argue, of course, that this responsibility is not taken seriously, but that's not a reason to hand over the power to private parties.

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