RIAA Threatened By Anti-Terrorist Law

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Lisa Rein

Lisa Rein
Oct. 15, 2001 03:26 PM
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The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is worried that the new Uniting and Strengthening America Act (USA Act) -- a sweeping anti-terrorist law -- would criminalize its plans for fighting music pirates.

The RIAA has been trying to find a way to deploy virus-like software that would seek out infringing files on your home computer and delete them. Under the USA Act, 'collateral damage' inflicted by this software (non-infringing files deleted by accident) would constitute an act of terrorism.

The RIAA seeks to protect its members from civil liability as well as criminal prosecution, fearing civil actions arising from violations of section 815 of the USA Act's "Deterrence and Prevention of Cyberterrorism" section.

Consequently, the RIAA sought last week to have an amendment added to the bill that would eliminate a copyright holder's liability in the event that its software deleted crucial files -- say, your business plan, medical records, novel-in-progress, or homework -- from your machine.

"It could lead to some really bad outcomes, like a program purposefully intended to delete MP3s that misfunctions and erases everything on a disk -- ooops," Marc Rotenberg, director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center, explained in a Wired article by Declan McCullagh. "Think a repo man smashing windows and knocking down doors to pull out the 27-inch color TV when you've missed a couple of payments."

So you could come home one day and discover that half the files on your hard-drive had been corrupted, and it's not your fault, but it's not their fault and you can't sue for damages.

Here an excerpt from the Wired Article:

The RIAA's interest in the USA Act, an anti-terrorism bill that the Senate and the House approved last week, grew out of an obscure part of it called section 815. Called the "Deterrence and Prevention of Cyberterrorism" section, it says that anyone who breaks into computers and causes damage "aggregating at least $5,000 in value" in a one-year period would be committing a crime.
If the current version of the USA Act becomes law, the RIAA believes, it could outlaw attempts by copyright holders to break into and disable pirate FTP or websites or peer-to-peer networks. Because the bill covers aggregate damage, it could bar anti-piracy efforts that cause little harm to individual users, but meet the $5,000 threshold when combined.
We might try and block somebody," Glazier said. "If we know someone is operating a server, a pirated music facility, we could try to take measures to try and prevent them from uploading or transmitting pirated documents.
The RIAA believes that this kind of technological "self-help" against online pirates, if done carefully, is legal under current federal law. But the RIAA is worried about the USA Act banning that practice -- and neither the Senate nor the House versions of that bill include the RIAA's suggested changes.

Although, according to McCullagh, the RIAA claims its members are already protected by Section 1030 of the U.S. Criminal Code, as a precautionary measure, the organization would also like one long very explicit sentence on the books stating that:

"No action may be brought under this subsection arising out of any impairment of the availability of data, a program, a system or information, resulting from measures taken by an owner of copyright in a work of authorship, or any person authorized by such owner to act on its behalf, that are reasonably intended to impede or prevent the unauthorized transmission of such work by wire or electronic communication of such transmission would infringe the rights of the copyright owner."

Luckily, in the end, our lawmakers did not grant any such Carte Blanche to overzealous copyright holders.

"Their lobbyists weren't able to convince lawmakers that such an amendment had anything to do with fighting terrorism, nor that granting vigilante powers to the gentle souls of the recording industry would further the ends of peace, justice and the American Way," writes BoingBoing's Cory Doctorow. "Is there any other industry in the world that fears and hates its customers more than the music industry? Maybe the insurance industry, I guess. Maybe."

For the time being, drafts of such legislation have gone back into the RIAA's cauldron until the next opportunity to include them within a Bill presents itself.

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Lisa Rein is a co-founder of Creative Commons, a video blogger at On Lisa Rein's Radar, and a singer-songwriter-musican at lisarein.com.