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ALEX GOLDMAN: From Gimlet, this is Reply All. I’m Alex Goldman.
PJ VOGT: And I’m PJ Vogt.
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ALEX: And this week, PJ, we have a Super Tech Support—
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ALEX: —the segment on our show where people write in to us with tech support issues that are just sort of beyond the scope of what they can solve themselves, and then I, very hubristically, try to solve those problems.
PJ: So what problem are you trying to solve this week?
ALEX: This one is from a listener whose name is Cayden, they use they/them pronouns, and they’re the executive director of a nonprofit in Oakland.
ALEX: And a couple weeks ago, Cayden started getting these really confusing emails.
CAYDEN: The first email I got on February 1st, um—
CAYDEN: —at 8:18 pm local time.
ALEX: The email was from Comcast, Cayden is a Comcast subscriber. And it said that Cayden had been illegally downloading a specific television show.
CAYDEN: So It says the infringing work is Girls, the HBO program from Lena Dunham. There’s actually a file name, so it’s Girls season 5, episode 4 in 720 DPI HDTV
PJ: What episode of Girls is that?
ALEX: So that episode, Fran and Hannah fight, Desi and Marnie fight because Desi puts up a wall in the apartment And then Jessa has sex with Adam.
ALEX: None of that is in the notice.
CAYDEN: It gives the infringement date and it says the type and method is bittorrent.
It gives the IP address and a case number.
ALEX: So, Cayden, at this point, is totally baffled, because Cayden doesn’t use bittorrent, and they already have HBO.
ALEX: How do you feel about the show Girls?
CAYDEN: Uh. I’ve seen some episodes of it. And actually a former roommate of mine watched it and so I watched a couple episodes with her and like I’m not impressed (laughs).
ALEX: And so Cayden is being accused by Comcast of using a program they’ve never used to download a show they don’t even like.
CAYDEN: My first thought was to email my roommates. So I live with two roommates.
And I just forwarded it to them the next day with the comment, “This is a really rude email and what the fuck?” And both of them were like this is news to me. And one of them was like look, I don’t even, I’ve never even used bittorrent in my life and this is really accusatory and abrupt, like what’s going on?
ALEX: And very quickly, it got even worse. Later that same day, Comcast sent more emails accusing Cayden of downloading the same Girls episode two more times.. And the emails just kept coming.
CAYDEN: So I got three on the first day, 4, 5, 6, 7. I got like 8 in the first week 6, 7, 8, 9, 10 — 10 in the second week.
ALEX: And do they all say exactly the same thing?
CAYDEN: Yeah, they say exactly the same thing. The only things that change are the
infringement date and then the reporting party case, um but they’re of the same file on
bittorrent and the body of the email is the same.
ALEX: So far, Cayden has gotten a total 24 of these emails, which are called DMCA notices: 24 letters from Comcast telling Cayden that they’ve illegally downloaded this particular episode of Girls.
PJ: Wait can I tell you something about DMCA notices?
PJ: I got one a couple weeks ago.
ALEX: For what?
ALEX: What did you download?
PJ: I will just say that I was accused of downloading High Maintenance from HBO. Which is only weird because I have HBO, but I was going on a plane and I wanted it on the plane. But they got me. And like literally I woke up on a Saturday morning and my internet was down and I thought I’d like kicked the plug or something. And I called the provider and I was like, “Hey, the internet isn’t working.” And they were like “about that… “ And it was like a warning thing.
ALEX: Was this your first time?
PJ: First time. So they were like you just have to call this other number and like apologize and then we’ll put it back on. But next time it will be a day and after that it will be a week. Which I was like that’s actually extremely annoying. How stressed is Cayden about this?
ALEX: Honestly Cayden is pretty stressed out, because according to the Comcast website if you get enough of these notices, your internet can be disconnected for no less than 6 months.
PJ: That's very severe.
ALEX: Yeah totally.
PJ: So what have they tried so far to solve the problem on their own?
ALEX: I mean the first thing that Cayden tried was just to make their wifi was secure, they changed the wifi password, very basic security stuff…
CAYDEN: I then decided I was going to call the number, um, that’s listed in the email for the Comcast customer security assurance center.
CAYDEN: And when I first called them, I got a person but he was like, hey, um, can you call back in like an hour?
ALEX: What? (laughing)
ALEX: Is it possible you dialed the wrong number?
CAYDEN: No I definitely--it was the right number because I clicked on it from my email on my phone.
ALEX: That’s wild.
CAYDEN: And then I called back like a day later and got a human who had the time to talk to me.
ALEX: But the person on the phone just did like super elementary stuff that Cayden had already done, just you know, like, are you sure your wifi is secure? Stuff like that. And it honestly kinda pissed Cayden off.
CAYDEN: I was like, A, as part of my job like I teach people about internet security (laughs). And B, like, I would think that I would know if someone in my household were doing this.
ALEX: Well, I’m gonna, you know, turn over some stones and I’ll see what I can figure out.
CAYDEN: Cool, sounds good.
ALEX: Alright, thanks a lot Cayden.
CAYDEN: Alright, thank you, I’ll talk to you soon.
PJ: Okay Alex.
PJ: It’s been a week.
PJ: What have you learned?
ALEX: I’ve learned that this is a hard problem to solve (laughs).
ALEX: Um. And the problem is that Cayden- Cayden came to me because they were convinced that this was a mistake, they were innocent, and they wanted me to prove their innocence.
PJ: In internet court.
ALEX: Right. But the problem is I don’t know where internet court is. Like I didn’t even know who I was supposed to appeal their innocence to. My first step was to call Comcast, because Comcast sent them the letter in the first place.
ALEX: Yeah my name is Alex Goldman, I’m a journalist...
ALEX: So I called Comcast, and I was like hey, there’s been a mistake here. Comcast was sort of like, um, we don’t think there’s been a mistake.
COMCAST OPERATOR: Most likely there is not mistakes on that because it’s not something done manually, it’s a system that detects whenever the copyright content is downloaded.
ALEX: OK, but what if it made a mistake?
CO: There is nothing else to do. At least not on the Comcast company end.
ALEX: She told me, that if there is a mistake, that’s not something that our agents can determine.
CO: We just give you the information as I said before to make yourself more secure.
ALEX: Basically you’re just the messenger.
CO: Uh yes, that’s a really good way to say it.
PJ: But they're not just the messenger, they're turning people’s internet off.
ALEX: Right. They will turn it off, but they say they’re not the ones who decide if you’re guilty or not.
And I spoke to Annemarie Bridy, who is a professor at the University of Idaho, and an expert in copyright law, and she says that what Comcast told me is actually right.
ANNEMARIE: It is not comcast who finds the infringers. So the movie studios and recording labels will often hire these digital forensics companies.
ALEX: So I’d never heard of these companies before, but they help places like HBO, or Sony, or Def Jam, by searching the internet for pirated material.
ANNEMARIE: There’s a company that is famous for working in this space that is called Rights Corp and they just send thousands of notices, these robots generate thousands of notices and they are sent on to the ISP.
ALEX: And the thing that didn’t occur to me before is it’s not like Comcast wants to send these DMCA notices — because when they have to shut off someone’s internet, they’re just losing a customer.
PJ: So then why do they do it?
ALEX: Well, the reason these are all called DMCA notices is because there's a thing called the—
ALEX, PJ: Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
ALEX: I'm glad that you know about this.
So the DMCA lays out this rule that super foundational to the Internet which is basically, if people use your platform for copyright infringement, you are not legally responsible for it as long as you try to act on it. If people upload movies to YouTube—YouTube isn't responsible as long as they try to take them down.
PJ: Got it.
ALEX: Comcast is not responsible unless—
PJ: Unless they're letting it happen.
PJ: But who decides how aggro they have to be?
ALEX: It's very poorly laid out. The law simply says that the platform owners need to take what's called “appropriate action.”
PJ: Uh huh.
ALEX: And no one has ever really defined what appropriate action is for an ISP and only recently did they define what appropriate action isn’t. So there's a internet service provider called Cox. They have 6 million customers or something like that, and... And Annmarie told me that a couple years ago, this music publisher BMG was trying to get Cox to tell customers they’d been caught downloading illegally, and that they had to pay money to get out of trouble.
ANNEMARIE: Cox didn’t like that the notices had settlement demands in them, and so at a certain point Cox just stopped processing notices they were receiving from Rightscorps
ALEX: This, of course, really pissed BMG off, so they sued Cox, basically for not disconnecting enough people. And the court sided with the record company. And the reason they sided with the record company is because they got all these internal communication all these internal e-mails from Cox being like,“I know we have to disconnect a couple people but let's not really disconnect that many people...”
PJ: (laughs) Oh my god.
ALEX: “—also let's just leave them disconnected for like a month and then we'll just get them back.”
PJ: Got it.
ALEX: And the court found that because Cox wasn’t doing enough about the people pirating stuff on their platform, Cox is now responsible for the pirated works.
PJ: Okay. So, the point with Comcast is they have to take these notices seriously, because otherwise, like they don’t want to end up in the same situation as Cox.
ALEX: Right. So that also means that I’m not going to be able to convince Comcast not to enforce this. So I figured if I wanted to plead Cayden’s innocence to anybody, I would try contacting the digital enforcement company that accused them of downloading this episode in the first place.
And fortunately, in the email that Cayden got that said they downloaded this episode of Girls, there is a line that says “reporting party” or something like that, and next to it says Vobile.
ALEX: Like Mobile with a V.
ALEX: So Vobile, as I now know, is the company that HBO hired to look for stolen episodes of Girls.
PJ: So Vobile could actually be the entity that made a mistake and misidentified Cayden, right?
ALEX: Well here is what I know:
I talked to the CEO of Vobile. His name is Yangbin Wang...and when I told him about the letter that Cayden got, he was like, Really? Cayden got a letter from us?
YANGBIN: I’m surprised because we’re not typically we’re not in that not in that service business, we’re not. You know we do have a content identification technology we’ve developed, and we use for many different purposes, but we’re not in the consumer DMCA notification business.
ALEX: This was really confusing to me, because what he is saying is that they wouldn’t go after someone like Cayden. They were interested in getting the big dogs. People and websites that are sharing tons of pirated stuff, rather than just the people who are downloading it.
PJ: So then why did Vobile target Cayden?
ALEX: I asked Yangbin that, and he said, I’m not really sure we did target cayden.
YANGBIN: There might be someone else [who] licensed our technology to do something that I’m not aware, you know.
ALEX: So do you think it’s possible in that case that someone licensed your software and used it to identify someone who was using a torrent?
YANGBIN: Could be.
ALEX: So maybe someone else was using Vobile’s software to go after Cayden, Yangbin wasn’t sure, but either way he said, “Look — our software works. So someone is stealing this episode of Girls...and I think you should be looking at Cayden’s home internet setup.”
YANGBIN: The likelihood would be wifi...you know, it could be used by neighbors, I mean I use Comcast at home. It came with wifi router and all that stuff. It could be used by friends who come into your home, it could be used by other people.
ALEX: So Vobile says, we don’t make mistakes, and we can’t help you anyway. Comcast says, we don’t think this is a mistake, and we can’t help you anyway. I contacted HBO, and they told me they don’t discuss their piracy measures with journalists. So, at this point, I was just super frustrated. Like, I had tried and tried and I could not find a person who was willing to hear Cayden’s case.
PJ: So then what?
ALEX: So finally, I find this website that is called the Center for Copyright information.
PJ: And what’s that?
ALEX: It’s a website that is run by both the entertainment industry and the ISPs, they’re working together. And the deal is, if you feel that you have wrongly received a DMCA notice, you can go to this website, pay $35, and you can appeal it. And if you’re successful, then they will tell your ISP they were wrong, and they retract it, and you shouldn’t have any strikes on your account.
PJ: You found internet court.
ALEX: Yeah, I found internet court.
PJ: So are you taking this case to internet court?
ALEX: I sent them an email and said, hey this person Cayden was wrongfully accused.
PJ: And what did they say?
ALEX: They didn’t say anything, they never got back to me!
PJ: (laughs) Got it.
ALEX: So basically what I found was a completely unaccountable system that was frustratingly opaque. It was maddening. So I decided to try something else.
ALEX: After the break, I take justice into my own hands.
ALEX: Welcome back to the show.
Before the break, Cayden had been accused of pirating an episode of Girls, and they were worried that their internet was going to get shut off. And I was just trying to find the right person to tell that this was all a big mistake. I tried their ISP, Comcast, I tried Vobile, the company that built the software that caught them. I tried HBO, the owner of the show they allegedly downloaded. and I tried an internet copyright court I’d never heard of before. And no one could help. In fact, pretty much everyone who did get back to me told mes the same thing — this is probably Cayden’s fault. You should check their home network, heck their router.
So I got an expert to help me do that.
ALEX: Yes, you sound amazing.
ALEX:This is Nate Prodromou.. Nate works for a company that’s called Awesome Jar in San Francisco, and they specialize in doing security for like hedge funds, venture capital firms.
ALEX: So, just to outline what the idea is...
ALEX: I caught him up on what’s going on in this case.
ALEX: And I wanted to know if he could like check out Cayden’s router, if there was anyway to see if someone had broken into it and downloaded an episode of Girls. And he told me that actually there is a way that someone could be using Cayden’s internet without being anywhere near Cayden’s house.
ALEX: So have you ever been in a train station and seen an Xfinity Wi-Fi wireless access point?
PJ: Yeah but then doesn't work.
ALEX: Right. But Nate said if you have a username and password that is provided to you by Comcast, you can log into those and use internet.
NATE: It's actually that they they reuse all the cable modems that everybody's houses that they provide service and they give out Wi-Fi access as part of the service but…
ALEX: Hold on a second—so does my cable modem. I have Xfinity. Does my cable modem have like a like a guest access that people are just piggybacking on my wireless?
NATE: Oh yeah. If you go...
ALEX: I am so mad right now.
NATE: Go home and look for available wireless networks and you'll see a network called Xfinity Wi-Fi.
ALEX: So nate told me that, when I get a Comcast modem, and install it in my house - I can set up a wireless access point for myself. But in addition to that, by default, my modem also broadcasts a public wireless network completely separate from mine, that anyone with a Comcast account can connect to.
ALEX: yeah, it’s not like they can connect to my network but they get a little bit of the bandwidth that my modem gives off.
PJ: (gasps) That is scandalous.
ALEX: And not only that apparently some people in California is sued Comcast because they’re like, the electricity that powers my modem some of it’s used to your benefit, like I don’t want you to use that. Which is incredibly petty—
PJ: That is very petty.
ALEX: —but so awesome.
So that’s why you see those Xfinity WIFI access points like in airports, train stations — it’s just gives Comcast users like Cayden the chance to use the internet when they’re not at home.
PJ: Yeah but that doesn't explain the whole Girls thing because it's not like Cayden was going to train stations and airports and like putting their wifi username and password stuff up and like inviting people to download Girls and then forgetting that they'd done it.
ALEX: Yeah, but then Nate raised an idea to me that that kind of blew the whole thing open.
PJ: It blew the whole thing gopin?
PJ: I just want to know what the thing gopin is.
ALEX: That's actually how my dad and my grandpa my grandparents talk.
PJ: Doesn't mean it's right.
ALEX: Are you done?
PJ: Thin gopin.
ALEX: If you cut it out for a second I could actually tell you the solution to all this, which is that Nate told me there’s a chance Cayden has what’s called a sub account.
PJ: What’s a sub account?
ALEX: A sub account would just be like a a second username and password. Like, you might make one for a roommate or a friend or someone — and that person could also use it when not at home.
NATE: Every time they get on somewhere, they’re gonna get an IP address that’s
associated with Cayden’s account.
ALEX: So every time that person finds a modem that offers this access to Xfinity and they log In, they are then given an IP address that’s associated with Cayden’s account?
NATE: Yeah and it would make sense that if that IP address were sharing files, doing
something wrong from DMCA’s standpoint, that Cayden would get the notification about
PJ: So if Cayden had even had a roommate like eight months before and the roommate had been like, oh I'm going to have this up for me. I'm always at Grand Central Station and I want to use the Comcast thing, they could be going around the world and illegally downloading Girls 24 times a month from all these other locations. It wouldn't have to be at the house.
PJ: Got it.
ALEX: So Cayden called a friend that they know who works at Comcast, who connected them with an engineer at Comcast.
And that engineer is like, yeah you have a sub account. And so Cayden was like, okay great... Whose sub account account is this?
PJ: And who left that whole thing gopin?
ALEX: Ugh, god.
PJ: Sorry that’s how my grandfather says it. Wait so could they look at Cayden’s thing and be like the sub account was created….
ALEX: The sub account belonged to Cayden’s ex-roommate.
PJ: Dun dun dun.
ALEX: That ex-roommate’s name is Elle.
ALEX: Hi is this Elle?
ELLE: Yes, it is.
ALEX: Hi this is Alex Goldman. How ya doing?
ELLE: Hey, I’m good. How are you?
ALEX: Elle lives in Berkeley now. She is studying to become a midwife. And the first thing I asked her was just like are you at all familiar with this Girls episode.
ALEX: The episode in question, it’s called Old Loves. And in this episode, Hannah and Fran get into a fight because Hannah, she’s not rigorous enough about the way she grades papers. Desi and Marnie get into a fight because Marnie feel- says she needs space and Desi builds a wall in the apartment and Marnie gets resentful. And then Jessa and Adam have sex. Does this episode ring a bell to you?
ELLE: The only part that rings a bell is the part of like building the separation in the room. I do remember that.
ALEX: So it’s not something that you watched 24 times?
ELLE: Oh no, there’s not a single episode that I watched more than once. I can assure you of that.
ALEX: Elle told me she is not computer savvy, she doesn’t know how to use bittorrent, has never used bittorrent. And I asked her, like, do you remember anything weird about the internet when you were living with Cayden? Anything at all? And she said no.
But, then she was like, “Okay, maybe this is information you could use? A couple years ago I was seeing this guy—”
ELLE: It was like not serious at all. We would mostly hang out in my bed and watch movies. And at one point, something we wanted to watch, we couldn’t find it through any legal means and he ended up downloading like I think it was called uTorrent or something like that.
ELLE: I know very little about the internet.
ALEX: She said he downloaded this program that was called uTorrent.
PJ: Which is just another torrent client.
ALEX: Right. And downloaded the show. She told me she didn’t think it was a Girls episode, but she would look into it. And the next day, she reported back to me.
ELLE: As soon as I got home I went on my laptop and I searched Girls and I found a file for Girls season 5 episode 4 and I was like hmm, interesting, here it is.
ALEX: So Elle was in no way being malicious. Um, she did not mean to cause Cayden to get these notices. But when she moved into her new apartment, she was trying to connect to the internet, and saw someone’s Xfinity wifi wireless. And she already had the sub account username and password that she had when she was living with Cayden, so she just used those to get on the internet.
PJ: Ok but why did she download that episode of Girls 24 times?
ALEX: I have a theory about that.
ALEX: So the DMCA notices weren’t just for downloading Girls that one time. I think Elle was inadvertently uploading Girls.
ALEX: She was accidentally opening uTorrent and then every time she opens it the torrent program is like hey I'm going to share this with whomever.
PJ: Well because the way torrents work is like you don't have the option of just downloading files you have to—I mean maybe there's a workaround, but it's setup so that you're always uploading stuff unless you turn it off.
ALEX: I imagine that it was probably somehow set to start on start up.
PJ: Right. That also explains why she's getting in trouble now, because if you think about it, like two years ago when she first started uploading this episode, there were probably tons of other people uploading it, but in the past two years there's probably fewer people that are still sharing an old episode of Girls, so she's like possibly one of the last uploaders which makes her a big target.
ALEX: That's possible, but I mean you just got busted for a relatively recent show that's also on HBO, maybe their detection just got better.
PJ: Right, but in any case, now that she’s no longer uploading it, Cayden should be out of hot water.
[MUSIC - "Simplicity" by Macroform]
So I called Cayden, told them what I learned —
ALEX: So, Elle, to her credit, has deleted uTorrent, has deleted the episode from her
computer, you should never experience this problem again.
CAYDEN: Brilliant! Well I’m glad we figured this out and I’m satisfied by our discovery here.
PJ: This is not how I wanted this to end. I do not like the idea that Vobile and Comcast and HBO… Like they were all right. It’s like when you try and contest a speeding ticket and they show you the picture of you speeding past the camera.
ALEX: So sorry bud, but the enforcers in this situation seem to be on point.
PJ: The system’s working.
ALEX: You're so mad about the system working!
PJ: Yeah, well it's just like, it felt like you could get away with stuff a few years ago, like. And now you can’t even jaywalk.
ALEX: I mean if you don’t want your internet to get disconnected you could just not pirate.
PJ: Do you pirate?
ALEX: Um, do I pirate?
PJ: Yes. If the answer is not no, it's yes.
ALEX: The answer is no but I benefit from other people's piracy.
PJ: Do you watch pirated material?
ALEX: Oh yeah.
PJ: Then you pirate.
ALEX: Um. someone else does the pirating I just watch the stuff on his computer.
PJ: Yeah, you pirate.
ALEX: I really didn’t expect to figure that one out.
PJ: Yeah, you blew the whole thing gopin.
ALEX: You are truly insufferable.
ALEX: Reply All is hosted by PJ Vogt, and me Alex Goldman. Our show is produced by Sruthi Pinnamaneni, Phia Bennin, Damiano Marchetti, and Kaitlin Roberts. More production help this week from Khrista Rypl and Elizabeth Kulas. Our editors are Tim Howard and Sara Sarasohn. Fact checking by Michelle Harris. Our intern is Devon Guinn. We were mixed by Rick Kwan and Our theme song is by the mysterious Breakmaster Cylinder. Additional music this week from Bobby Lord. The ending Super Tech Support Theme is Simplicity by Macroform. Special thanks to Javier Nunez Cespedes, James Grimmelmann, and Jon McCaron. Matt Lieber is that week where it finally gets warm enough that the last of the snow melts. You can visit our website at replyall.limo, and you can find more episodes of the show on Spotify, Apple Podcasts, or wherever you listen. Thanks for listening, we’ll see you in a couple weeks.