ACS:Law e-mails - the highlights

The breach that saw the e-mail database of anti-file-sharing firm ACS Law leaked onto the Internet has yielded some interesting extracts - and none of them paint the company in a good light.

Aside from the leaking the personal details of around 10,000 UK broadband customers - the majority of whom stand accused of sharing hardcore porn titles including "To The Manor Porn" and "Catch Her In The Eye" - which has prompted an immediate investigation by the Information Commissioner's Office, the uploading of the e-mail archive has offered a fascinating insight into the operations of an anti-file-sharing legal house - and into head honcho Andrew Crossley's professional and personal life.

Skipping over some of the strongly-worded personal e-mails, which don't make Crossley look particularly professional, the archive brings up some very interesting extracts - including e-mails from and on behalf of pensioners who vehemently deny being part of the alleged porn ring that ACS:Law claims.

In one e-mail sent by the man himself, Crossley muses the creation of a fact sheet which could be sent out with the accusatory letters to alleged infringers designed with the intention of "answering all the usual questions and dispelling some common misapprehensions, as I think it will better inform people and increase revenue" - which campaigners are claiming shows the company's true concerns lie with profiteering rather than the protection of its clients' copyrights.

A common theme across many of the e-mails is Crossley's dealings regarding Deborah Prince, legal chief for consumer rights outfit Which? and one of Crossley's biggest detractors. In one e-mail seeking advice on the possibility of a defamation action against Prince, Crossley states that "Deborah Prince is a total idiot," who doesn't understand ACS Law's business. After being advised that defamation proceedings are unlikely to bear fruit, Crossley enquires whether it would be better to issue "a complaint to the sra [Solicitors Regulation Authority] that this lady [Prince] - who is a solicitor - is bringing the profession into disrepute."

Crossley's attempts at attacking Prince prove somewhat ironic when, in a later e-mail, he reveals that there have been over five hundred complaints registered against him with the Solicitor's Regulation Authority. A series of e-mails shows Crossley sought help from fellow legal beagle Andrew Hopper, QC to minimise the damage that knowledge of these complaints would cause to his reputation. In the exchange, Hopper advises Crossley that "perhaps that it would be tactically wise to switch the emphasis away from letter writing, which is decreasingly likely to work, and capable of exacerbating the situation, and towards litigating against those that have not settled" from previous campaigns.

Hopper then goes on to recommend, "a service designed to protect reputations damaged by the Internet," in which the company aims to "dominate the first 5 pages of Google with search results to pages we control" through the creation of "mini websites, social media profile pages, articles, hub pages, to flood the Internet with positive information."

Interestingly, Hopper recommends that ACS:Law hides its true intentions by creating the sites, "in such a way that no one suspects it is done purposely for brand protection," while using the power of the shill pages to "move [negative] web page results off the first 5 pages of Google" - a service for which the un-named company charges £150 per month for a minimum of twelve months.

A complaint sent by Crossley to the producers of BBC's The One Show, following an item on ACS:Law's letter-writing campaign in which Deborah Prince featured, shows an interesting interpretation of guilt. In the e-mail, Crossley states that, "it is entirely possible for the infringement to occur even when a computer is left unattended," and the accused parties can be guilty even if they didn't touch a thing, as, "It does not require user input, merely a live connection to the Internet and a file sharing software program on a switched-on computer connected to it."

In another section of his complaint, Crossley argues that those accused shouldn't be encouraged to deny it - and goes so far as to ask: "What about the people who on balance prefer to enter into a compromise, rather than run the risk of costly litigation?" Although Crossley's query doesn't specifically state that his company is happy to take the money of innocent people who feel threatened into paying by his company's accusatory letters, it certainly reads that way.

While Crossley clearly believes that what some people have called 'speculative invoicing' is a perfectly valid means of making a living, an e-mail exchange with Westminster City Council shows that he doesn't like being the recipient of same. Following the dumping of commercial waste without a Waste Transfer Note, the Council fined ACS Law £300 - a move which led Crossley to complain that he felt "utterly appalled at how I have been treated like a criminal."

It's not just Crossley who has been embarrassed by the leak. ACS Law supervisor Adam Glen sent an e-mail to Crossley in which he raises a concern that "an infringer [...] had spoken with Alan Lamb at FACT [Federation Against Copyright Theft] who directed them to [consumer rights charity] Which?," and explains that he finds it "rather shocking that an organisation supposedly protecting copyright should redirect an enquiry made a person who may have infringed copyright to an organisation which has done the maximum possible to dilute protection of copyright" - a concern that Crossley agrees "needs to be managed."

While campaigners against the company's actions continue to sort through the e-mail archive, more potentially damaging information is likely to come to light - but so far, ACS Law has kept silent on the matter.

It's hard to see how things could get much worse for the company - but with an SRA investigation outstanding, a possible £500,000 fine for breach of the Data Protection act on the cards, and its e-mail database now in the public domain, things look bleak for ACS Law and its campaign of litigious threats.