In a July 25 letter released late Thursday, 19 lawmakers from both sides of the aisle asked Ashcroft to prosecute "peer-to-peer" networks like Kazaa and Morpheus and the users who swap digital songs, video clips and other files without permission from artists or their record labels.
The Justice Department should also devote more resources to policing online copyrights, the lawmakers said in their letter.
"Such an effort is increasingly important as online theft of our nation's creative works is a growing threat to our culture and economy," the letter said.
A Justice Department spokesman declined to comment.
The recording industry says peer-to-peer services cut into CD sales. It has been battling them in court since 1999, when the five major labels sued pioneer file-swapping service Napster.
A U.S. federal judge ordered Napster to shut down its service in July 2001, but upstarts like Kazaa and Morpheus soon took its place. Kazaa, which allows users to swap movies and other media files in addition to music, said this week that its free software had been downloaded 100 million times.
Music labels have not ruled outindividual users and have pushed for the right to flood peer-to-peer networks with bogus files, or to disrupt them by other means.
While a debate has raged on Capitol Hill over the proper balance between copyright protection and technological innovation, U.S. law-enforcement authorities have taken a minimal role.
The Justice Department filed a supporting motion siding with the record labels in the Napster case, but has brought no cases of its own.
Rubber-stamped by labels
The move by lawmakers was welcomed by the Recording Industry Association of America, which represents the five major labels--Bertelsmann, Vivendi Universal, Sony, AOL Time Warner and EMI Group.
"There is no doubt, mass copying off the Internet is illegal and deserves to be a high priority for the Department of Justice," said RIAA Chairman Hilary Rosen in a statement.
An analyst for a digital civil liberties group said the Justice Department probably had better things to do with its time.
The letter "implies that Justice should be going after relatively innocent behaviors that I suspect most Americans don't think warrant the time," said Alan Davidson, an associate director at the Center for Democracy and Technology.
On the other hand, "we would much rather see current authorities be used before Congress goes and creates brand new laws," Davidson said.
A spokesperson for Republican Rep. Lamar Smith of Texas, who signed the letter, said that lawmakers did not want FBI agents to arrest casual users; they'd rather go after operators of network "nodes" that handle much of the traffic.
Among those signing the letter were: Democratic Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware; Republican Rep. James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin; Democratic Rep. Bobby Scott of Virginia; Democratic Rep. John Conyers of Michigan; Republican Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina; and Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California.