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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

Your rights online: eroding away?

Those nice folks at the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are at it again. You might remember them as the Internet bullies extraordinaire, who managed to beat lowly Napster into litigious submission and cow colleges and universities everywhere into enforcing their claims of intellectual property control. It is not surprising then, that in the recent flurry of legislation to make us all safe from the civil liberties and rights that we have established over the last 225 years, the RIAA has tried to slip in their own clause giving them carte blanche to break into or impair any system that they feel has violated their intellectual property ownership (see, http://wired.com/news/conflict/0,2100,47552,00.html).

One version of the amendment language proposed by the RIAA is documented as follows (see http://www.wartimeliberty.com/article.pl?sid=01/10/14/1756248):

'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 intended to impede or prevent the infringement of
copyright in such work by wire or electronic communication; provided that
the use of the work that the owner is intending to impede or prevent is an
infringing use.'

In other words, "RIAA: if we think you are using our property without our OK, we have the right to disrupt your electronic communication and you can't do a darn thing about it."

The amendment did not make it into the legislation, however, this does raise some interesting questions about rights to online privacy and attitudes to online information resources. The fact that such cavalier language would be proposed should raise eyebrows everywhere. The above is equivalent to "since we think you illegally copied that CD, we're going to burn down your house to prevent you from using it or making further copies, and you have no recourse." Far fetched? I think that there would be great public outcry if the latter example were proposed, but what the electronic version proposes is to protect a copyright owner for action which impairs the function of an information system, its programs, or its ability to make data available. This is the electronic equivalent of carte blanche for a torch through the window.

Another example of this disparate treatment of Internet resources is the FBI's reported "Carnivore" system. According to Wired magazine (http://www.wired.com/news/politics/0,1283,46747,00.html), "The FBI's controversial Carnivore spy system, which has been renamed DCS1000, is a specially configured Windows computer designed to sit on an Internet provider's network and monitor electronic communications. To retrieve the stored data, an agent stops by to pick up a removable hard drive with the information that the Carnivore system was configured to record." We take for granted that we will be free of such generalized "shotgun" surveillance of our daily lives, yet such activity as applied to the Internet has yet to have any final disposition and outside of the technical community, has generated very little public outcry.

Why should we care?

Why should we care about such matters of electronic surveillance? Well, there's that longstanding tenet of "innocent until proven guilty" that has been such a foundation of our "American" way of life and the individual liberties it provides. Beyond that, though, is the fact that so much of our lives is now extending to the online world and the resources it provides us. These are crucial times for determining whether that online world will be an extension of the society in which we place so much pride, an additional arena of individual achievement and free flow of the commerce of ideas. Or, will it deteriorate into a realm of constant suspicion and accusation, of suppression and intimidation, and of inhibition of ideas and innovation.

These are not just questions for the technical "elite" or policy and law makers. Anyone who has a stake in the continued development and maturation of the Internet should familiarize themselves with issues of online privacy and electronic communication. Such issues deserve a greater public hearing and should be debated at much greater length before legislation is enacted effecting online freedom. In higher education, we are making a substantial investment in the online world. Just as libraries are the foundation of education, the Internet has the potential to provide universal access to education. It is our future. Who will determine what that future will be?