Förderverein Informationstechnik und Gesellschaft



There's No Such Thing as Free HBO

Satellite television giant DIRECTV is suing thousands who may or may not have hijacked its signal. And you thought the music industry was tough.



The company has written to roughly 150,000 of these customers, warning that each may be liable for up to $10,000 per device -- $100,000 if the devices are resold. In most cases, DIRECTV will back off if the accused agrees to shell out a $3,500 settlement, surrender the devices in question, and sign a pledge to never pirate the company's signal again. So far, it has sued at least 22,100 people who have refused to settle. Very few cases have proceeded all the way through the court system. DIRECTV has had a handful of court victories, including a $30,000 judgment this month against a Florida man. The company also dropped a few cases at the last minute, although it won't reveal how many it has dropped or settled.

Technology and civil liberties experts worry that many of the defendants bought smart cards for legitimate purposes and never stole a second of DIRECTV's signal. The experts view the suits as a ploy to make anxious techies cough up $3,500, and they complain that DIRECTV's actions are crimping development of a promising new technology. The San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and Stanford's Center for Internet and Society Cyberlaw Clinic have teamed up to launch, a Web site that disseminates advice and matches up the accused with local lawyers.

EFF staff attorney Jason Schultz acknowledges that businesses advertising smart cards for illegal purposes are breaking the law. Yet there's no reason a person can't own a smart card if it's used legally. "When somebody buys a sports car, you could assume that at some point they will break the law," he says, "but we don't preemptively give out tickets."

Civil liberties experts say DIRECTV has cast its net far too wide. Schultz says the company has sued people who don't even own satellite dishes, and viewers who subscribe to rival services. DIRECTV has even sued its own paying customers. And the growing pool of defendants includes many who can't afford the settlement. "We've talked to people who are on welfare, in trailer parks," Schultz says. "We talked to one guy whose wife was sued while she was in a coma in the hospital."