Hollywood’s fight with VPNs is getting ugly

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Group more than two dozen movie studios have repeatedly taken popular VPN providers to court, sometimes seeking millions of dollars in damages. While piracy remains a central problem, recent legal arguments hired by Hollywood studios have surpassed allegations of copyright infringement and plunged into dirtier waters.

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Filmmakers trying to recoup revenue lost to piracy have long argued that VPN companies encourage online privacy and have clear evidence that their customers are abusing the privacy and security provided by VPNs. But court records show that the studio’s legal teams have also accused VPN providers of allowing illegal activities that go far beyond copyright infringement and, according to legal experts, are challenging the notion that VPNs should exist at all.

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In March, 26 film companies filed charges against ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access (PIA), popular no-registration VPN companies owned by Kape Technologies. The plaintiffs include production companies such as Millennium, Tension and others behind the list of popular films. The lawsuit focuses on user privacy claims. However, court documents reviewed by WIRED show that the plaintiffs allege that these VPN providers refuse to prevent users from using their services to commit serious illegal activities and run marketing campaigns that openly “boast” that law enforcement can’t get any information about your users.

Generally speaking, VPNs provide users with greater privacy protection by encrypting their online activity and redirecting it through the company’s servers, hiding their IP addresses. Many VPN providers, including ExpressVPN and PIA, claim to “keep no logs” of their users’ online activities. This means that VPN providers cannot access data to turn it over to the police or comply with copyright infringement requirements. Similar to the arguments against end-to-end encryption, movie companies portray VPN providers as guilty of any crimes committed while using their services.

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“Encouraged by the Defendants’ promises that their identities cannot be revealed, Defendants’ end users use their VPN services not only to engage in widespread movie piracy, but also to engage in other outrageous criminal activities such as harassment, illegal hacking, and murder.” , says the lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in Colorado. “When these crimes become public, the defendants use these tragic incidents as an opportunity to show off their VPN services.”

VPN companies have responded in lawsuits that the “inflammatory topics” raised by the plaintiffs are not related to copyright infringement. Allegations of “hacking, harassment, bomb threats, political assassinations, child pornography, and anonymous online messages full of hate speech that allegedly encourage violence and murder” are a ruse to portray the VPN in a “cruelly derogatory light.” VPN legal groups say.

In addition to vague examples of horrific crimes, the court document mentions an Express VPN subscriber who admitted to uploading child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Film companies also reveal the personal political views or activities of those who work for VPN companies. In particular, they focus on Rick Falkwing, known for his political views and arguments for CSAM to be legal. Falkving Head of Privacy at PIA and creator of political pirate Party. He has repeatedly advocated reform of copyright laws, calling “copy and share“natural law”.

Lawyers for PIA argue that these allegations should be dropped from the case as they are completely inappropriate and “only serve to stir up emotion in a misguided attempt to turn the court and the public against the defendants by falsely associating them with non-parties whose behavior is being described.” at these points.

Both ExpressVPN and PIA have also denied these allegations in statements to WIRED. An ExpressVPN spokesperson also emphasized that “the operation of the ExpressVPN service has not been modified or otherwise affected in any way relevant to the dispute between the parties.”

PIA claims that this lawsuit endangers users’ privacy and will therefore continue to fight in court. “We affirm that using a VPN is a legitimate way to protect your online privacy, a fundamental human right that is increasingly at risk of being violated,” the company said.

A legal adviser representing film studios did not respond to WIRED’s request for comment.

While Hollywood has been waging legal battles around the world for years, its fight against the VPN industry in the US intensified last year. VPN company TorGuard, for example, got into trouble with the same group of plaintiffs who successfully forced the VPN provider to block BitTorrent traffic for its users in the USA. And in October 2021, VPN.ht also “payed off” with these filmmakers, agreeing not only block BitTorrent but also log traffic on their servers in the USA. Hollywood studios also use providers like Surfshark, VPN Unlimited and Zenmate. to court.

Film company Voltage, which is part of a group of companies that regularly sue VPN providers, goes even further by sending emails to Internet customers. Claiming fines for alleged piracy and threatening them with legal action.

In March 2021, some of the same production companies that sued ExpressVPN and PIA also sued non-logging VPN provider LiquidVPN for “encouragement and reliefpiracy. Later film companies demanded $10 million in damages. from company. In March of this year, a judge ruled in absentia against LiquidVPN. ordering him to pay for his studies in the amount of 14 million dollars..

This lawsuit was largely centered around LiquidVPN’s fiery marketing practices and claimed that the VPN is “optimized for torrenting” and allows you to “unblock streams banned by your ISP”. The studios claimed that this tactic encouraged illegal use of the service by those who wanted to bypass legal restrictions on access to online content. They may be right.

According to the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), an Internet civil liberties group, Hollywood’s demands are “extreme and not supported by law.” But VPNs are also entering dangerous territory with their marketing tactics.

“The studios claimed that the VPN provider and his hosting company should have been legally responsible for monitoring what their customers are doing with the service to see if copyright infringement occurs,” says Mitch Stoltz, senior lawyer at EFF. “Not only is this against the law, but it would undermine the very purpose of a VPN service, which is to protect people’s Internet communications from being sniffed.”

However, Stoltz cautions that bold marketing language used by VPNs, such as LiquidVPN’s claim to be “optimized for torrenting,” could well be considered “incitement” in a legal context and subject to copyright infringement liability. Fearing large monetary losses, VPN providers may instead shut down some of their services or settle the dispute out of court.

“In contrast, a VPN that does not promote or encourage infringing use will generally not be held liable in court, even if some users do infringe,” says Stoltz. “This is an important legal defense for VPN providers who provide an essential service that would be undermined if they were faced with broad monitoring and blocking requirements.”


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