WASHINGTON (AP) _ A federal judge's decision significantly raises the risks for computer users who illegally trade music or movies on the Internet, making it much simpler for the entertainment industry to tie a digital pirate's online activities to his real-world identity.
U.S. District Judge John D. Bates ruled Tuesday that Verizon Communications Inc. must identify an Internet subscriber suspected of illegally offering more than 600 songs from top artists. He said Verizon argued a ``strained reading'' of U.S. law and that its courtroom argument ``makes little sense from a policy standpoint.''
The Recording Industry Association of America, the trade group for the largest music labels, had sought the user's identity with a subpoena approved under the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act. The law doesn't require a judge's permission for such subpoenas, a central complaint in the dispute.
The ruling means consumers using dozens of popular Internet file-sharing programs can more easily be identified and tracked by copyright owners. Even for consumers hiding behind hard-to-decipher aliases, that could result in warning letters, civil lawsuits or even criminal prosecution.
Verizon promised to appeal and said it would not immediately disclose its customer's identity. The ruling had ``troubling ramifications'' for future growth of the Internet, said Verizon's associate general counsel, Sarah B. Deutsch.
``The case clearly allows anyone who claims to be a copyright holder to make an allegation of copyright infringement to gain complete access to private subscriber information without protections afforded by the courts,'' she said.
Deutsch said Verizon planned no immediate changes to disrupt sharing of computer files among its customers.
Cary Sherman, president of the recording association, said piracy is a ``serious issue for musicians, songwriters and other copyright owners, and the record companies have made great strides in addressing this problem by educating consumers and providing them with legitimate alternatives.''
The judge acknowledged the case was an important test of new subpoena powers Congress granted copyright holders. He said the 1998 law permits music companies to force Internet providers to turn over the name of a suspected pirate upon subpoena from any U.S. District Court clerk's office, without a judge's order.
Critics of the procedure said judges ought to be more directly involved, given the potential privacy issues involved when a corporation is asked to reveal personal information about customers over an allegation of wrongdoing.
``This puts a huge burden on Internet service providers,'' said Harris Miller, head of the Washington-based Information Technology Association of America, a trade group. ``It turns them into judge, jury and executioner just because someone makes an allegation about a problem.''
The entertainment industry traditionally has fought illegal trading by suing companies that operated file-sharing networks. But technology has made it possible to decentralize these networks, allowing users to trade from computer to computer without a service like Napster's.
In response, the industry has increasingly worked to trace users individually, either threatening them into shutting down their collections or persuading Internet providers to pull the plug. It also has resorted to seeding networks with fake files and clogging network connections to frustrate people looking for free music.
The Computer and Communications Industry Association predicted the music industry ``will be cranking up its presses pretty quickly'' to send legal warnings to Internet users sharing songs and movies.
``This has the potential to really mushroom out of control, to be very burdensome,'' said Will Rodger, a spokesman for the computer group, whose membership includes one firm, Streamcast Networks Inc., that distributes file-sharing software.
Napster, the Web site that led the way for computer users to swap recordings for free, has been down since July 2001, when a judge found that its operations violated copyright law and ordered it to remove copyright recordings.