RIAA Back-pedals on PC Hacking

The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) is trying to distance itself from an attempt earlier this month to insert language into a broad anti-terrorism bill that would have given the organization's members the right to hack into computers operated by Internet music sites—as well as those owned by private individuals—to find and delete pirated recordings. The wording suggested by the RIAA would have excluded copyright holders from criminal charges for causing damage to computers in the effort to control piracy.

Many civil libertarians had predicted that the copyright-obsessed entertainment industry would try to get stiff anti-piracy legislation folded into any new national security laws that might be passed in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11. Sure enough, the RIAA did exactly that, taking a section of the anti-terrorism Uniting and Strengthening America Act (passed by an overwhelming majority in both houses of Congress) that defines computer hacking as a crime and writing in exemptions for copyright holders.

Section 815 of the USA Act ("Deterrence and Prevention of Cyberterrorism") defines as criminal computer hacking causing aggregate damage of "at least $5000 in value" in a one-year period. The exemptions would have given the music and movie industries, book publishers, and others the right to probe commercial and private computers in the search for unauthorized files—even if such a search caused catastrophic damage to a computer, such as erasing the hard drive or deleting the operating system.

"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 if such transmission would infringe the rights of the copyright owner," reads one version of the RIAA-proposed exemption, leaked to Wired.

Destroying an enemy's transmitters is a military tactic as old as technology. The RIAA planned to use its own technological weapons in the war on file sharing, according to an in-depth report by Declan McCullagh that appeared on the Wired News site. "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," stated RIAA lobbyist Mitch Glazier. "We might try [to] block somebody." Other reports quoted RIAA officials as saying they were out to "smother file sharing," as if music lovers with MP3 files were somehow as much a threat as Al Qaeda-trained guerrillas.

Music industry lobbyists quickly withdrew the proposal once word got loose about what the exemptions could mean for computer users. The RIAA is now trying to downplay and soft-pedal the fact that it tried to sneak in this legislation during a time of national crisis. An official statement on the organization's site goes so far as to deny that it was seeking governmental permission to probe private computers and destroy files. "Technical measures" exist to combat piracy, the RIAA statement admits, but the organization has "been analyzing the law to make sure that using these technical measures would be completely lawful . . . . The real long-term solution is a marketplace solution." Music fans have been saying that for years.