Hollywood’s charges against VPNs go beyond piracy

Movie studios now accuse VPN companies of enabling child pornography and political assassinations.
(Stock image via Pexels, Graphic by The Desk)

Emerging technology has drawn scrutiny from traditional film and television studios for years. That’s nothing new. But a recent court battle between Hollywood studios and a group of technology providers has waded into some dark waters.

Recent lawsuits brought by Hollywood studios have set their sights on virtual private networks, or VPNs. The technology providers allow customers to virtually change their location by diverting web traffic through another server, which makes it appear that a customer is based in another location.

That shift allows customers to access services like HBO Max and BBC iPlayer and alternate catalogs offered by Netflix in foreign countries that may not always be natively available in a country without a VPN. While some VPNs simply advertise their service as a way to keep Internet browsing anonymous and secure, some like ExpressVPN explicitly market their product as a way for streamers to access services that would otherwise not be available to them.

Using a VPN is not illegal in the United States, and there are many legitimate reasons for doing so: People who use the Internet through public hotspots use VPNs to keep their web browsing anonymous and secure. But using VPNs to circumvent technology restrictions put in place by a streaming service is piracy, and Hollywood studios have alleged for years that VPNs knew or should have known that their services were being used in this manner.

But recent court filings have shown Hollywood studios escalating their fight against VPNs in a dark way, with accusations that services allow customers to buy drugs, trade child pornography and even plot murders.

Court documents published by Wired showed a consortium of Hollywood studios recently accused ExpressVPN and others of enabling Internet users to carry out a slew of unsavory acts, including “hacking, stalking, bomb threats, political assassinations, child pornography and” accessing “anonyous online message board(s)” where illicit activity takes place.

Defendants in one lawsuit said those accusations were “completely irrelevant” and were meant to “prejudice the Court and the public against the defendants by false association with the non-parties whose conduct is described” in the complaint.

While VPNs like ExpressVPN may turn a blind eye to their services being used for piracy, they and other VPNs say the terms of their service prohibit other crimes like downloading child pornography.

But the studios say those terms don’t go far enough: In other lawsuits, movie studios have gone so far as to suggest that VPN service providers be forced to log the activity of their users — some do not — and disconnect customers who are proven to have committed copyright infringement or another crime by way of their service.

“Defendants have the capability to log their subscribers’ access to their VPN service but purposely delete the logged information or set up their system so that the logged information is deleted so that they can promote their service as a means to pirate copyright protected works anonymously,” a complaint filed in a Virginia federal court said.

Some VPN providers have emerged somewhat victorious in a handful of lawsuits, including one brought against ExpressVPN, with a spokesperson telling the tech magazine Wired that a court had recently dismissed a complaint brought by a group of filmmakers, but that the company couldn’t discuss the issue.

Nonetheless, ExpressVPN said that its “operation…has not been changed otherwise impacted in any way relevant to the parties’ dispute.”

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