Casting call for hackers

It’s the RFP the industry has been waiting for: Hollywood wants a one-size-fits-all technology that will allow it to break into peer-to-peer networks and potentially damage the systems of computer users around the world. Legally.

This flagrant example of justice gone berserk comes from

U.S. House of Congress representative Howard Berman, who introduced a bill Thursday that would grant media and recording companies unprecedented powers to monitor piracy. Thank goodness the August recess is coming up. Perhaps by the time government officials get back from vacation they will all have given their heads a shake.

This is not the forum to debate the ethics of Napster and firms like it. (Though I think the record-setting box office grosses for films like Spider-Man, which was available for download well before its theatrical release, makes it hard to build a case that Hollywood is suffering from.) The issue is to what extent such legislation would set a precedent for the allocation of law enforcement authority to parties outside government.

Berman, quoted in a Reuters story, said the bill was necessary even though there is no way governments can “”eradicate the problem”” of P2P networks. In doing so he displays an unusual level of honesty about the challenges governments and other regulatory officials face. It is certainly a problem, and not one I am capable of solving, either. That doesn’t mean we can allow the industry to in effect act as an online police force, with the government overseeing their activities from on high.

Of course, the bill includes provisions that would supposedly protect the innocent. Electronic disruptions are only permissible if the copyright holder has a “”reasonable basis”” to believe their work is being pirated. Files cannot be deleted, but those under “”investigation”” might not be able to take legal action if files are erased accidentally. Copyright owners would have to inform the Justice Department when they took action, but no word on what form that communication should take, or how soon beforehand. Most importantly, it does not spell out what kind of measures the copyright owners would take. They could launch a virus. They could perform the sort of denial of service attacks that struck Microsoft, CNN.com and other corporate sites last year.

It is certainly not difficult to imagine this bill, if it becomes law, finding its way into Canada’s legislature as well. In any case, the global nature of P2P would raise the same jurisdictional quagmires that have plagued courts since the Internet was born. The greater danger lies in how such a law could be employed by other copyright owners.

If protecting movies and songs from the consumers deserves these kind of special measures, why shouldn’t applications that run some of the country’s major corporate enterprises? Already, Microsoft is trying to combat piracy by threatening software “”audits”” of corporate networks depending on how they choose to participate in the volume licensing strategy it will introduce next week. When governments begin to sanction the intrusion of copyright holders into their user communities, the lines between auditing and hacking start to blur.

No one doubts the justice system is failing to keep pace with technological change, but that doesn’t mean governments should shirk their responsibility where so much privacy, security, and intellectual property is at stake. I don’t need to read the script to know this is one story that wouldn’t have a Hollywood ending.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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