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A shaky case against Verizon

RIAA’s new tactics could make Internet life unbearable.

A recent ruling by U.S. District Court Judge John Bates would force Verizon to reveal the identity of an alleged MP3 downloader. This is troubling news because it sets a very bad precedent. If all ISPs are required to reveal the identities of users accused of illegal behavior, private organizations like the RIAA could legally participate in witch hunts to roust out both innocent and guilty citizens alike. While I am concerned about Big Brother’s snooping in such programs as the Total Information Awareness Act, I am mortified by the notion of corporations and their front organizations receiving court orders to pursue private citizens. Fortunately, Verizon will appeal on these very principles and hopefully it will win. If the appeal fails, not just our privacy, but the nature of our Internet experience could be forever changed.

You might think I’m stretching precedent a little bit with these melodramatic statements. But the language of the ruling suggests otherwise. Judge Bates wrote, the 1998 Digital Copyright act [which the RIAA used to defeat Verizon in court] “applies to all Internet service providers … not just to those service providers storing information on a system or network at the discretion of a user.” Given the scope of the 1998 act, the ruling applies not only to music swapping, but to any violations of copyright law as narrowed by the act. These could include software, text, movies, or indeed any intellectual property. Individuals or companies that believe they are sharing information as part of the fair-use provisions of our copyright law could be treated as guilty until proven innocent by private companies or overzealous organizations like the RIAA.

Other consequences to the business of Internet use are just as sobering. The liability overhead placed on ISPs alone would put many of them out of business. ISPs would be faced with a very tough dilemma: Violate the privacy of their customers routinely or face Verizon’s legal plight, which will be expensive. While Verizon can afford the legal battle, hundreds of independent ISPs would either knuckle under or go under. If they knuckle under, they face possible privacy litigation, which could be as expensive as fighting the copyright violation claims. Suffice to say that independent ISPs are rooting for their archrival Verizon in the appeal.

If the appeal fails, users can take heart that organizations such as the RIAA cannot go after all intellectual-property users. The herd moves on even though the outer fringes are preyed upon. And, assuming the user’s name is released, the RIAA still has to prove that he did what it says he did. There are all sorts of ways of spoofing digital identity that put an element of doubt into the civil case. And identity-cloaking devices will always outsmart the RIAA’s vigilance, as Kazaa and dozens of others stepped in when Napster fell. Some of these methods will increase the possibility of false accusations. At some point, even the RIAA cannot shield its member companies–AOL Time Warner’s Warner Music; Sony Music of Sony Corp; Bertelsmann AG’s BMG; Universal Music Group of Vivendi Universal and EMI Group Plc.–from the negative publicity false accusations and spurious litigation bring.

I’m left wondering when the recording industry will finally get it. The Internet has forever changed the way music is created and shared. As Bob Dylan sang, “Your old road is rapidly aging/please get out of the new one if you can’t lend your hand.” At any rate, hunting down and suing some of your best customers is no way to do business.

James Mathewson is editor of ComputerUser magazine and

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