Hollywood movie studios have been relentlessly pursuing legal action against major VPN (Virtual Private Network) providers in an attempt to curb online piracy. But VPN companies are fighting back, arguing the lawsuits threaten user privacy and security online.
Over the past several years, groups of prominent production companies including Disney, Warner Bros, Netflix and more have filed lawsuits against VPN providers including ExpressVPN, Private Internet Access (PIA), TorGuard, LiquidVPN and others.
The studios allege these VPN services encourage copyright infringement by allowing users to hide IP addresses and download movies and TV shows illegally. By suing the VPN providers, Hollywood hopes to force them to either log user activity or implement measures to shut down piracy over their networks.
But the VPN industry has resisted, saying logging user data would violate their zero-logs privacy policies. They also argue they should not be held responsible for how some individuals may use their services illegally.
This article examines the ongoing legal battle and its implications for online privacy and cybersecurity.
Why Hollywood is Targeting VPNs
For Hollywood studios, VPNs represent a major hurdle in their anti-piracy efforts. VPNs allow users to route their internet traffic through remote servers, masking their true IP address and location.
This anonymity allows users to privately download copyright-protected content through peer-to-peer torrenting networks or illegal streaming sites. And copyright holders have a very difficult time tracking down the individuals responsible.
VPNs are growing increasingly popular not just for piracy but also for online security and circumventing internet censorship. Top services like ExpressVPN, NordVPN and others now have millions of users worldwide.
Industry group MPA (Motion Picture Association) estimates piracy costs Hollywood over $30 billion annually in lost revenue. While not all VPN users engage in piracy, studios believe anonymity encourages illegal streaming and torrenting.
In a recent statement, MPA Chairman Charles Rivkin said:
"These rogue operators refuse to play by the rules…They must be held accountable for facilitating and enabling theft on a massive global scale.”
By filing lawsuits, Hollywood is pressuring VPNs to either log user activity and hand over data to authorities or implement technical measures to prevent copyright infringement over their networks.
The First Wave of Lawsuits
Hollywood‘s legal campaign against VPN services kicked off around 2018 with lawsuits against providers like TorGuard and VPN.ht:
TorGuard Hit With Piracy Lawsuit – In May 2018, a group of movie companies sued TorGuard in federal court for facilitating mass copyright infringement. The studios demanded TorGuard retain user data logs to identify pirates. After initially fighting the case, TorGuard agreed to start logging basic connection details including IP addresses and timestamps.
VPN.ht Forced Into User Logging – That same year, a Portuguese court sided with a local film association ordering Hong Kong-based VPN.ht to log user data and make it available upon court orders. The service ultimately complied to avoid being blocked.
Early victories spurred more lawsuits against other major providers like LiquidVPN and PureVPN throughout 2019 and 2020.
The Kape Technologies Lawsuit
In early 2022, Hollywood launched its biggest legal assault yet against VPN industry giant Kape Technologies.
Kape owns several of the most popular VPN services including ExpressVPN, CyberGhost, Private Internet Access (PIA) and Zenmate. These services combine for millions of subscribers globally.
Allegations Against Kape
On March 26, 2022, over 20 prominent studios including Disney, Warner Bros, Netflix and Paramount filed a lawsuit in a California federal court alleging Kape encourages "widespread copyright infringement."
Specifically, the lawsuit claims:
Kape VPN services "refuse to take reasonable steps to prevent the widespread use of their services for copyright infringement."
They market themselves as ways to illegally download movies and TV shows with impunity.
Users flock to Kape‘s VPNs for piracy based on the promise of anonymity.
Kape profits from "the massive copyright infringement that they actively facilitate and encourage."
The lawsuit demands Kape log user activity and stop infringing copyright by pirating users. Kape would also pay damages to compensate for losses from piracy enabled by their VPNs.
Kape filed a motion to dismiss calling the lawsuit meritless. Highlights of their rebuttal include:
The lawsuit fails to show any wrongdoing by Kape services. Merely providing VPN services is not grounds for contributory copyright infringement claims.
Kape cannot be held responsible for how some end users utilize VPNs any more than an automaker can be liable if someone uses their car as a getaway vehicle.
Kape does not promote piracy. The lawsuit cherry-picked normal marketing language out of context.
At the time of writing, the lawsuit is still pending a decision on Kape‘s motion to dismiss. But legal experts expect the case could drag on for years based on past VPN litigation.
Why VPNs Won‘t Back Down on Privacy
For VPN providers, maintaining privacy protections for users is an existential business issue. Logging user activity or restricting certain types of traffic could drive users away.
In an interview with Cointelegraph, the CEO of ZenGuard (owner of TorGuard VPN) explained why VPNs can‘t capitulate to Hollywood‘s demands:
“For the VPN space to exist long term, there needs to be this idea that you‘re anonymous, that you‘re secure. As soon as you destroy that narrative, the whole space just starts falling apart.”
Many VPNs market heavily around "no logs" policies. Retaining activity logs or turning them over to authorities would violate this core promise to subscribers.
There‘s also the danger logs could leak and expose sensitive user information or enable government surveillance. Some countries already ban VPNs, so providers are wary of anything that could invite more censorship.
Speaking with Variety about the Kape lawsuit, the CEO of rival VPN provider NordVPN said:
“If companies start logging users, VPN services would become useless — both for piracy and as a privacy tool protecting people’s data.”
So while VPNs acknowledge issues like piracy, most seem unwilling to undermine user trust and privacy by altering their practices and policies.
The Difficulty of Banning VPNs
Another barrier for Hollywood is there are hundreds of VPN providers globally across different jurisdictions. Targeting a few major brands won‘t significantly impact piracy as long as alternatives remain available.
Attempting to legislate VPNs at the ISP level also faces challenges. India floated plans to ban VPNs to combat VPNs enabling banned services and content. But the proposal was tabled after backlash over cybersecurity and free speech concerns.
Banning all anonymity online would likely be infeasible both politically and logistically. And as long as underground demand exists, VPN-like services would likely emerge on the dark web.
For now, Hollywood‘s strategy appears focused on making examples of major consumer VPNs. The goal is to pressure providers into either compliance or implementing measures to curb piracy themselves.
But based on responses so far, VPN companies remain committed to protecting user privacy – even if it means continuing an expensive legal fight.
Using VPNs Legally and Responsibly
For consumers, these clashes underscore the importance of using VPNs legally and ethically. Here are a few tips:
Only stream movies or download software from legitimate sources. Avoid piracy sites and torrent networks.
Research the logging policies of any VPN before subscribing. Look for verified no-logs services.
Consider supporting VPN providers who stand up for privacy rights while appropriately responding to legal requests.
Use common sense. A VPN shouldn‘t make you feel above the law but rather empower you to manage your digital footprint.
Responsible, legal use of VPNs helps preserve online privacy as a right for all. But abuse of these tools also invites crackdowns that could harm those digital rights long term.
Hollywood‘s intensifying legal campaign puts VPNs at a crossroads between protecting profits and user privacy. But if early cases are any indication, VPN providers appear ready for a prolonged fight on behalf of their users‘ right to anonymity online.