O2 condemns 'bullying' law firms for threatening file-sharers


Mobile provider O2 has waded into the row over legal firms sending out threatening letters to alleged file sharers, claiming the practice is "bullying".

O2's reaction comes after its broadband users were among those to receive letters from law firm ACS:Law, acting on behalf of client DigiProtect an anti-piracy firm representing a group of content providers across Europe.

The letters alleged they had illegally downloaded copyrighted material and gave them the chance to settle out of court for a fee of 500 per infringement.

However, O2 has condemned the practice, which has been criticised as designed to prey on consumers' fears of a costly lawsuit and potentially embarrassment given that the copyrighted material in question is often pornographic in nature.

O2 condemned what it says were attempts "by rights holders and their lawyers to bully or threaten our customers", saying that instead of resorting to intimidating letters, it preferred to focus on developing positive solutions to prevent a file-sharing culture from arising in the first place.

"Where we are legally obliged to provide information and the correct paperwork is presented, we will comply with the law," an O2 spokesperson said. "But we prefer the 'win-win' approach of encouraging the development of new business models that offer customers the content they want, how they want it, for a fair price."

The controversy surrounding the letters first came to public attention when law firm Davenport Lyons was widely criticised for targeting innocent computer owners with similar letters last year.

Indeed, many of the cases ACS:Law is pursuing have been passed on by Davenport Lyons, which is currently under investigation by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) for the practice. ACS: Law is itself the subject of a separate SRA investigation.

Unsurprisingly, ACS:Law has dismissed the claims of bullying. "neither we nor our clients threaten or bully anyone. We send out letters of claim to account holders of internet connections where those internet connections have been identified as being utilised for illegal file-sharing of our clients' copyrighted works," the company's Andrew Crossley said in a statement.

"Our letter makes an enquiry in that regard and invites the recipient of our letter to respond to this evidence. In addition they are invited to enter into a compromise to avoid litigation."

Critics have widely argued that questioned the accuracy of the methods used to identify pirates, claiming that an IP address alone isn't sufficient evidence that the owner of the PC in question was actually responsible for the downloading.

According to ACS:Law, it has identified around 60,000 UK IP addresses it claims are in breach of its clients' copyright terms, and is currently applying for court orders to force the ISPs in question to disclose the physical addresses of the individuals tied to those computers.

While the process isn't perfect, the firm estimates that four out of ten IP addresses it targets will lead to actual addresses it can then get in contact with via letter.

In January, consumer watchdog Which? said it had received more than 150 complaints from people claiming to have been wrongly accused, primarily by ACS:Law.

One such claim came from someone who said their 78-year-old father, who didn't even know what file-sharing was, had been asked to pay 500 over accusations of downloading pornography.

In June last year both Which? and the UK Internet Service Providers Association commented that they were "not confident" in the methods used by ACS:Law to identify illegal users.