Has your service provider confused you with a child-porn downloader? You may have no legal remedy

Long v. Insight Commc’ns of Cent. Ohio, LLC, No. 14-3996 (6th Cir. Oct. 23, 2015).

Fiber optic cables (credit: flickr / Ray Fujioka)

Fiber optic cables (credit: flickr / Ray Fujioka)

Law enforcement got a subpoena requiring Time Warner to identify a subscriber who was downloading child pornography. Unfortunately, the IP address belonging to the child-porn downloader was different by one digit from the IP address belonging to the Long family, the plaintiffs in this case. Although the subpoena identified the correct IP address, Time Warner apparently got confused: it told law enforcement that the IP address belonged to the Long family. So officers got a search warrant for the Long family home. Once there, they realized they had the wrong IP address, and they ended the search and left the home.

The Longs got an undeniably raw deal. The main question here, though, is whether they have a claim against Time Warner under the Stored Communications Act. That Act generally prohibits internet service providers from handing subscriber information over to the government. It makes an exception, however, for subpoenas. Providers are allowed to turn over certain subscriber information if theyre served with a subpoena. And here law enforcement served Time Warner with a subpoena. So didn’t Time Warner obey the Act when it turned over information here?

Not so fast, respond the Longs. The subpoena authorized Time Warner to hand over information about the subscriber identified in the subpoena—and the subpoena identified an IP address that didn’t belong to the Longs. So the subpoena didn’t authorize Time Warner to turn over information on the Longs. For that reason, say the Longs, Time Warner can’t rely on the Stored Communications Act’s subpoena exception.

Even if the Longs are right about that, though, they face another problem: the Stored Communications Acts allows recovery only to a subscriber who’s been injured by a violation of the Act committed “with a knowing or intentional state of mind.” And, according to the Sixth Circuit, the Longs have alleged nothing to suggest that Time Warner knowingly or intentionally gave inaccurate information to law enforcement. At most, Time Warner was negligent. The upshot is that Longs don’t have a claim under the Stored Communications Act, and the district court was right to dismiss their claim under Rule 12(b)(6).