Hollywood’s Fight Against VPNs Turns Ugly 

 April 23, 2022

Beyond accusations of promoting copyright infringement, film companies have started accusing VPNs of promoting a slew of illegal activity.

Over two dozen film studios have frequently taken popular VPN providers to court, sometimes extracting judgments worth millions of dollars in impairments.

While piracy stays the central issue, recent legal arguments utilized by Hollywood studios have overtaken accusations of copyright infringement and delved into more contaminated waters.

Filmmakers endeavoring to recoup revenue failed to piracy have long alleged that VPN corporations both encourage online privacy and have clear-cut proof that their customers are manipulating the confidentiality and security of virtual private networks. But court records indicate that studios’ legal teams have also blamed VPN providers for enabling illegal activity beyond copyright infringement. As a result, legal experts challenge the notion that VPNs should exist.

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In March, 26 film companies obtained allegations against ExpressVPN and Private Internet Access (PIA), popular “no-log” VPN companies held by Kape Technologies. The plaintiffs possess production enterprises like Millennium, Voltage, and others behind a slate of widespread films. The lawsuit spheres around allegations of user privacy. However, court documents examined by WIRED reveal plaintiffs asserting that these VPN providers refuse to control users from using their services to commit brutal illegal acts. Instead, it handles marketing campaigns that openly “boast” that law enforcement cannot extract any information about its users.

Generally speaking, VPNs provide users greater privacy protections by encrypting their online activity and forwarding it through the company’s servers, suppressing their IP addresses. Many VPN providers, including ExpressVPN and PIA, the reason to maintain “no logs” of their users’ internet activities. It means VPN providers can’t access data to turn over to the police or comply with copyright infringement claims. Like arguments against comprehensive encryption, the film companies paint VPN providers as culpable in any crimes committed while using their services.

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“Emboldened by Defendants’ pledges that their identities cannot be disclosed, Defendants’ end-users use their VPN services not only to encounter widespread movie piracy. In addition, other outrageous criminal conduct such as harassment, illegal hacking, and murder,” reads the lawsuit, filed in US District Court in Colorado. “When these crimes evolve public, Defendants use these tragic incidents as possibilities to boast about their VPN services.”

The VPN companies answered in court filings that the “inflammatory topics” plaintiffs evoked are irrelevant to copyright infringement. Instead, allegations as distant afield as “hacking, political assassinations, stalking, bomb threats, child pornography, and unidentified online message panel posts full of hate speech. appears to encourage violence and murder,” are a plot to illustrate the VPNs in “a cruelly derogatory light,” argue the VPNs’ legal squads.

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Beyond vague instances of heinous crimes, the court notes an Express VPN subscriber is admitting to downloading child sexual abuse material (CSAM). Furthermore, the film companies call out the personal political views or actions of those employed by the VPN parties. Specifically, they focus on Rick Falkvinge, who understood for his political ideas and opinions that CSAM should be legal. Falkvinge previously acted as PIA’s “head of privacy” and completed the political Pirate Party. He has repeatedly endorsed reforms to copyright laws, reaching “copying and sharing” a “natural right.”

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“Any opinions described by Rick Falkvinge are his own and do not recall PIA or its views as a company. In particular, PIA in no way favors child sexual abuse or exploitation of any form,” a PIA spokesperson said. Its policies strictly forbid anyone utilizing its service to traffic in CSAM.

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PIA’s attorney claims that the allegations that it helps severe illegal activity must be stricken from the case because they are entirely irrelevant and “serve only to inflame sentiments in a misguided attempt to favor the Court and the people against the defendants by fraudulent association with the non-parties whose conduct is expressed in these paragraphs.”

ExpressVPN and PIA further restricted the production companies’ comprehensive allegations. The court had dismissed the claims in the filmmakers’ suit but could not disclose the settlement terms. It is emphasized that the “operation of ExpressVPN’s service has not been changed or otherwise influenced in any way appropriate to the parties’ dispute.”

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PIA maintained that this litigation threatens user privacy and will keep fighting in court. “We assert that using VPNs is an honest way to protect one’s online privacy—a fundamental human right, which is increasingly in trouble of infringement,” the company said.

While Hollywood holds waged legal battles worldwide for years, its struggles against the VPN enterprise in the US ramped up last year. VPN company TorGuard, for example, is anchored in legal hot water with the same group of plaintiffs who successfully moved the VPN provider into blocking BitTorrent traffic for its US clients. VPN.ht also “settled” with these filmmakers, deciding to intercept BitTorrent and log the traffic on its US servers in October 2021. In addition, Hollywood studios have also taken providers such as VPN Unlimited, Surfshark, and Zenmate to court.

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Film company Voltage, which is among the pack of companies regularly suing VPN providers, moves a step further, mailing notes to internet customers demanding penalties for plausible piracy and intimidating them with legal acts.

In March 2021, some identical production corporations suing ExpressVPN and PIA sued no-log VPN provider LiquidVPN to ” stimulate and facilitate” piracy. Later, the film companies solicited $10 million in damages from the company. This March, a judge issued a default judgment against LiquidVPN, ordering it to pay the studios $14M.

That lawsuit primarily centered around LiquidVPN’s dynamic marketing practices and asserted that the VPN is “optimized for torrenting” and allows you “unblock ISP banned streams.” These tactics, the studios concerned, inspired illicit use of the service by those willing to avoid legal restrictions around accessing online content. They might be respectable.

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According to EFF, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an Internet civil liberties group, some of Hollywood’s demands are “extreme and not supported by law.” Indeed, in December, a federal court in Florida dismissed a lawsuit against Quadranet, which provided hosting to LiquidVPN, brought by many of the same film companies that sued ExpressVPN and PIA. But VPNs are also treading into the dangerous territory via their marketing tactics.

“The studios claimed that a VPN provider and its hosting company should have included a legal responsibility to monitor what their clients were doing with the service, to visit if copyright infringement was going on,” states Mitch Stoltz, a senior staff attorney EFF. “Not only is that not the law, but it would also damage the whole purpose of a VPN service, which is to save people’s internet communications against eavesdropping.”

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Stoltz cautions, however, that bold marketing language employed by VPNs, such as LiquidVPN’s “optimized for torrenting” claim, can very well be deemed “inducement” in a legal context and incur liability for copyright infringement. Therefore, fearing the possibility of heavy monetary damages, VPN providers may instead choose to shut down some of their services or settle out of court.

“In contrast, a VPN that doesn’t advertise or encourage infringing uses generally won’t be liable in court even if some users infringe,” says Stoltz. “That’s an important legal protection for VPN providers, who provide an important service that would be undermined if faced with broad monitoring and blocking requirements.”

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