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The Back Page
by Bryan Chaffin

Senator Orrin Hatch: Destroy The Computers Of Pirates
June 18th, 2003

The success of Apple's iTunes Music Store (ITMS) has raised, for the first time, the possibility of a legal online music selling service that works. That possibility has led to talk that piracy networks could, possibly, face competition from such legal services. While that may, or may not, be the case, at least one politician is not at all happy about online piracy, and the progress of the recording and tech industries have made in combatting it. Orrin Hatch, the Republican Senator from Utah, has a simple solution, to allow the recording industry to destroy the computers of those trading in illegal files. Unfortunately, I am not making this up; from an AP report:

Illegally download copyright music from the Internet once, or even twice, and you get a warning. Do it a third time, and your computer gets destroyed.

That's the suggestion made by the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee at a Tuesday hearing on copyright abuse, reflecting a growing frustration in Congress over failure of the technology and entertainment industries to protect copyrights in a digital age.

The surprise statement by Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, that he favors developing technology to remotely destroy computers used for illegal downloads represents a dramatic escalation in the increasingly contentious rhetoric over pirated music.

During a discussion of methods to frustrate computer users who illegally exchange music and movie files over the Internet, Hatch asked technology executives about ways to damage computers involved in such file trading. Legal experts have said any such attack would violate federal anti-hacking laws.

"No one is interested in destroying anyone's computer," replied Randy Saaf of MediaDefender Inc., a secretive Los Angeles company that builds technology to deliberately download pirated material very slowly so other users can't.

"I'm interested," Hatch interrupted. He said damaging someone's computer "may be the only way you can teach somebody about copyrights."

You can read more on the hearings and Senator Hatch at the full story at Yahoo!'s Web site.

There is already far too much power in the hands of copyright owners to punish suspected pirates without any sort of due process. For instance, the MPAA can get your ISP to close your account if it thinks you are trading in pirated movie files without any sort of judicial or other legal involvement or oversight. The RIAA has pursued similar strategies, also without any sort of due process. The notion of adding to those powers by giving an industry the power to destroy someone's computer without any sort of due process, with a Congressional exemption on product liability to boot, is just mind-numbingly insane.

Quick questions on this: How does the recording industry (or those prosecuting such a punishment scheme in the name of the industry) know that a file trader doesn't legally own the song they are downloading (cassette, LP, scratched CD)? How does it know the person downloading the song is the rightful owner of the computer, and not someone using that computer without the consent of the owner? How can it be sure what the contents of a file being downloaded actually are? Is the name enough?

The long and the short answer is that you can't be sure, not all of the time. There are too many variables involved that could allow an innocent to be wrongly punished to give this kind of power to any organization outside of a court.

This is not to say that I support piracy, far from it, but this kind of nonsense is not the way to solve the piracy issue. Indeed, the recording industry's woes, and the subsequent rise of piracy can largely be pinned on the recording industry itself. Artificially high prices from labels grown fat and lazy from years of inflated profits have made piracy attractive to a lot of people. In an age when moral relativism has made thievery not a crime in the minds of many, many Americans, that's a recipe for Kazaa, LimeWire, Gnutella, and other P2P networks that is a reality all around us.

It is not our fault that the idiots in charge of the recording industry are too stupid to understand this, and the thought of giving those same idiots the power to destroy someone's computer -- again, without due process -- is beyond scary. To think that it could be accompanied by a product liability exemption that could easily make the recording industry immune from any kind of wrongful-computer-death lawsuit just makes it that much more perplexing.

Senator Orrin Hatch is one of the smartest people on Capitol Hill, and I have a lot of respect for many of the positions he has held over the years. He is a politician who is well-versed in technology, at least compared to many in his age bracket and social circles, and a songwriter, too, but his zeal for protecting copyright owners is misplaced in wanting to protect an industry that has grown corrupt and decadent.

It is possible, and indeed I hope this is the case, that he is merely sounding off in order to get the attention of the tech world, the recording industry, and would-be pirates, and that he has no actual desire to see this sort of power given to the industry. Such is the opinion of some of those discussing this in our forums.

If so, he chose what I think is the wrong vehicle to do so. It sends the wrong message to the recording industry, one that could encourage it to think that it can continue with business-as-usual. What the recording industry needs is encouragement to evolve, not power to be judge, jury, and executioner.


began using Apple computers in 1983 in a high school BASIC programming class. He started using Macs in 1990 when the Kinko's guy taught him how to use Aldus PageMaker, finally buying a Power Computing Power 100 in 1995. Today, Bryan is the Editor of The Mac Observer, and has contributed to the print versions of MacAddict and MacFormat (UK).

You can send your comments directly to him, or you can also post your comments below.

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