SocketHop: Crafting a Bigger Brother

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A proposed secret international treaty would greatly heighten penalties for copyright infringement, some threatening civil liberties.  SocketHop, the technology decoder for the literature-minded, takes a look.

TelescreenEveryone breathed a sigh of relief when it was announced one year ago that the music industry would stop its broad lawsuits against alleged file sharers.  Since about 2003, the movie and music industry associations (the MPAA and the RIAA, respectively) have been suing consumers accused of sharing copyrighted files over the Internet.  At one point, the RIAA was even targeting students like us directly with threatening letters with the help of (unwilling) universities. The music industry finally learned how to adapt its business model to changing times and consumers hailed the arrival of DRM-free online music stores and new RIAA lawsuits have ended for now.

None of this means that content producers are giving up the fight against copyright infringement.  A new treaty, the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), is currently being negotiated in various countries around the world.  The cause for alarm is that everything is happening entirely in secret, with many of the key players denying involvement and others claiming that it is a purely “economic” treaty.  Very few drafts have surfaced but many industry “advisory committees” have access to confidential documents.  No one knows all of the details of the negotiations, but enough has leaked that many consumer advocate groups are concerned. The reason for all this secrecy?  You could probably guess: “national security.”

ACTA negotiations are not officially being overseen by any international agreement or government.   A few memos that have been posted online show the scope and frightening direction of this new law.  Some proposals include provisions that would force Internet service providers (ISPs, like TimeWarner and Comcast) to provide information about alleged copyright infringers–without a warrant.  Other proposals include allowing customs agents to randomly search passengers’ electronic devices for illegally-obtained content.  If found, the devices could be confiscated or destroyed.

Critics complain that these provisions violate fundamental civil liberties such as the right to due process.  The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), a consumer advocate group for all things digital, has been very outspoken in its opposition to the treaty and has rightly called for more transparency in the negotiations.  The Free Software Foundation (FSF) worries that the treaty will threaten the development of free and open source software, a lot of which utilizes peer-to-peer networks for legal distribution.

At this point, it is unknown what the final product will be or what portions will become U.S. law.  In the past, American lawmakers have generally been in favor of strengthening copyright and IP law.  This is not only because of lobbyists’ influence but because many members of Congress are not familiar with technology and its uses. With luck, our courts will see sense and reject any proposed laws that stem from these new treaties. Whatever the outcome, copyright law is sure to remain a hotspot of legislative activity for the near future, so don’t take those torrented episodes of “House” for granted just yet.


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  1. aaaaah  

    don't take my torrents!!! why are all the cool interest groups--the computer savvy, stoners, city-dwellers--so politically disadvantaged?

  2. Because  

    Old people don't know how to use the internet.

  3. you know what?  

    yeah RIAA freaking sued me...LAME

  4. well

    You missed the big brouhaha about 3 Strikes Laws - laws that allow content distributors to force ISPs to cut off your internet after 3 "violations" by your IP address. This despite mounting evidence that the aformentioned content companies do a piss-poor job of making sure they've got the right address before firing off threatening letters. European countries are starting to adopt these laws, and there's worry that ACTA might demand international adoption of the standard.

    And before you come to the defense of the content companies, keep in mind that they're not above vastly distorting the truth. 60 Minutes just did a puff piece for the MPAA to complain about how the movie industry is being destroyed by video piracy, while hollywood is smashing box office revenue records.

    Oh and then there's this gem:

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