- The Washington Times - Wednesday, July 23, 2003

The next phase has begun in the battle between the Recording Industry Association of America and people who exchange music over the Internet. The implications for society will be substantial.

Digital music can be compressed with little loss of quality and sent over the Internet. If you want to hear Elvis sing “Hound Dog” you can easily find it on file-sharing networks such as Kazaa and Morpheus, download it, burn it onto a CD, and presto, it’s yours.

Huge numbers of people, not just teenagers, regularly do this. The music industry goes crazy because it loses money.

The first file-sharing program was Napster, which worked exceedingly well. It used central computers, however, and was thus vulnerable to legal attack. The RIAA shut it down.

In response, the anti-industry music fans came up with the Kazaalike networks, which didn’t have central computers and therefore made poor legal targets. The RIAA has responded by suing individuals who share music.

Now something called Freenet has taken the next step: it makes possible the anonymous distribution of almost any kind of files, including music. The aim is to make it very difficult to tell where a file came from, where it’s going or what it is.

Freenet says that its traffic is up three-fold since the RIAA started suing, and it reports that 1.2 million people have downloaded the necessary software.

At first glance, all of this may not seem very important. Actually it is very important, for reasons having little to do with music. Anonymous, encrypted transfer is a threat to the capacity of governments to monitor criminals, terrorists and dissidents. Because it is very hard to stop communication via Internet, whether of music or pornography or political views, measures to do so must be close to totalitarian.

While the music industry is the most conspicuous force pushing for strict monitoring of the Internet, music is actually a side issue. The question being decided is whether people should be able to communicate privately and anonymously.

The Freenet site bluntly brings up some crucial points regarding copyright and freedom of speech. For example:

From Freenet’s Frequently Asked Questions page: “What about child porn, offensive content or terrorism?”

Freenet’s answer: “While most people wish that child pornography and terrorism did not exist, humanity should not be deprived of its freedom to communicate just because of how a very small number of people might use that freedom. You cannot have freedom of speech without the option to remain anonymous.”

Or, starkly, “You cannot guarantee freedom of speech and enforce copyright law.”

In the past, this wasn’t true. Protecting copyright in 1950 meant confiscating illegally printed copies of books and records. This had no effect on one’s ability to communicate with others in privacy. Today, protecting copyright seems to mean giving either the RIAA, or the federal government the power to examine everything you send across the Net, including political views, love letters and comments about your boss.

The big file I send you might be my birthday pictures, my attempt at the great American novel, child pornography or pirated music. To find out which, the government has to open it. If I encrypt it for privacy, which the Freenets of the world contemplate doing, then it becomes impossible for the RIAA and difficult for the government to read.

Pressure would then mount from the industry and Homeland Security Department to outlaw encryption, or leave it vulnerable to government, or ban anonymous transfer of files.

These are new questions, inseparable from digital technology. They need to be answered.

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