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Internet service started decades ago with the invention of the World Wide Web, which was primarily available to governments and universities. In the 1990s, the Internet became more widely available for public use and eventually allowed companies to offer Internet service to the masses. Technology advanced from basic dial-up modems to broadband to satellite to DSL (digital subscriber line). Today’s technology now includes cable and fiber-optic lines, which allow very rapid transmission of large amounts of data.

Two satellite-based Internet service providers (ISPs) dominate coverage in the United States, HughesNet and Viasat. There are thousands of non-satellite providers in the United States, but the top five—and best-known—are AT&T, Comcast, Charter Communications, Verizon, and CenturyLink (Lumen).

Legal Obligations of ISPs

ISPs hold a wealth of information and have legal obligations to retain it for a minimum period for policing and government surveillance. In the United States, ISPs must maintain a customer’s Internet history for at least 90 days. Even if users delete Internet browsing history from a device or use secure web browsers, ISPs still know what domains are visited and when. However, certain methods prevent an ISP from seeing browsing history, such as the use of a VPN service, Tor browser, or an encrypted web proxy, and no laws prevent an individual from using these tools.

The most common information sought from ISPs via civil subpoena is this: to whom was a specific IP address issued as of a specific date and time. Such requests typically result from having determined that some Internet activity (logging into an account) originated from that IP address on that date and time and the need to identify the responsible party.  

Cable Privacy Act

Cable provider ISPs, such as Comcast, are subject to the Cable Privacy Act, 47 U.S.C. § 551. These entities are prohibited from releasing any personally identifying customer information without a court order. Any party attempting to subpoena a cable provider ISP for subscriber information must first file a motion with the relevant court requesting an order permitting the ISP to disclose the requested information (or simply have the subpoena in question “so ordered,” a common practice in many jurisdictions).


One critical component when issuing a subpoena to an ISP that involves IP addresses is providing accurate timestamps. Many IP addresses are classified as dynamic because they can change and be issued to a new user. When issuing a subpoena to an ISP to identify the party to whom they issued a specific IP address, you MUST provide the DATE and TIME of the event in question (i.e., to whom they issued IP address XXX on X date at Y time). To avoid potential confusion regarding time zones, the date and time in question should ALWAYS be expressed in UTC (Universal Time Coordinated).


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