Wednesday, May 21, 2003

Der Spiegel

 It seems that Der Spiegel, a German weekly news magazine patterned after Time Magazine, may be going the way of the New York Times. As bad as the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and the various stupor-DMCA state bills may be, none of them are anywhere near as bad as this article makes them out to be. Parts of the article are interesting indeed, while the not-so-useful portions are so over the top as to be self-fisking. Thus, I'll keep my comments to a minimum.

    Television Viewing Prohibited
    By Michael Voregger

    A growing number of U.S. states is demonstrating what the world may look like if lobbyists for industry get their agendas through the legislatures. There, anyone who watches T.V., makes a telephone call or uses email without a permit can be fined.

    In Colorado, anyone who turns on his television set can be fined, unless he has a license from the state. This state in the American heartland is one of six that have passed laws restricting the use of television sets, computers, telephones and other communications devices.

Brilliant analysis, apart from two minor details. First, the bill in question, H.B. 1303, does not require license to use a telephone, a computer or a TV set. Second, H.B. 1303 doesn't require anything at all, as Governor Owens vetoed it today. Other than that, the analysis is right on.

    Before operating any of these devices, each citizen must obtain permission from a regional "Communication Service Provider," if he does not want to be in violatin of the law. Even answering machines, fax machines and cellular phones fall under this regulation. Anyone who fails to register is a potential violator.

    Behind this development is the Motion Picture Association of America, which represents every film company from Warner Bros. to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

    Lobbyists see this legislation as a minor change to existing rules intended to combat Internet pirates and people who steal cable or satellite service. Since 2001, representatives of the studios have been working to strengthen state laws around the country. With this goal in mind, the MPAA has developed a bill to submit to every legislature.

    While the details of thse laws vary from state to state, their basic effect is always in line with the recommendations of the MPAA. The legislation is intended to prohibit the production, possession and use of any communications devices that allow the theft of services and television signals.

    The Electronic Frontier Foundation sees these laws as redundant and unnecessary. According to these virtual civil libertarians, the public interest is being sacrificed to the self-serving demands of the mass media.
    Consumers as Suspects

    "These measures are special interest legislation, which endanger use, innovation, free expression and competition," explains Fred Lohmann of the EFF. "Communications service providers, i.e. Internet service providers, cable TV providers and digital entertainment companies, can use these laws to restrict Internet connections, cable TV receiption, and satellite TV connections. They can prohibit a multitude of uses of their services, which are necessary to the protection and the security of the Internet."

    Meanwhile, the MPAA has lobbyists pushing similar legislation in every other state. Thus far, similar laws have passed in Delaware, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wyoming and Arkansas.

    The next state on the MPAA's list is Massachusetts. Violations of this law will be punished with fines up to $2,500 and up to 2 1/2 years' imprisonment. Violators in Illinois can even be fined for $25,000 and imprisoned for five years.

    Computer Scientist Edward Felton [sic, Felten] of Princeton University believes that these laws criminalize technologies that are intended to protect Internet surfers from their all-too-curious contemporaries. "Many common measures taken to protect one's sphere of privacy, such as public key encryption and firewalls are illegal under the terms of these laws, the professor worries. If a device can be used for illegal purposes, the device itself would prohibited also.

    The laws hold computer owners responsible for any components to which a cable connection can be made accessible, even if that device is used for a totally different purpose. "If the device can be used for illegal purposes, it's illegal."

    John Palfrey, the director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society in Harvard, has likewise gone on record in opposition to the law in Massachusetts. He is concerned that the publicization of any weaknesses in the telecommunications security systems may be prosecuted criminally. "I haven't heard from anyone who wants this law enacted, not even among prosecutors," Palfrey said. "The only people who say that we need these laws are representatives of the MPAA."

    Critics did not become aware of this dvelopment until very late in the game, and nine more states are already working on strengthening their laws, as well. This will be a boon to the real pirates, who will barely be noticed when attention shifts to the masses of illegal television viewers.

For what it's worth, here is a more sensible critique of Colorado's failed stupor-DMCA bill.

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