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Anti-Napster fight takes aim at online anonymity

The fight over music piracy on the Web is developing a new front, as music industry executives and others trying to stem online song-swapping take aim at Internet anonymity.

The fight over music piracy on the Web is developing a new front, as music industry executives and others trying to stem online song-swapping take aim at Internet anonymity.

Stung by what they say is rampant copyright violation through music-sharing services like Napster and Gnutella, record industry executives are saying that too much privacy on the Net can be a bad thing.

Napster wildfire"We must restrict the anonymity behind which people hide to commit crimes," Edgar Bronfman Jr., chief executive of Universal Music Group parent Seagram, said last week. "As citizens, we have a right to privacy. We have no such right to anonymity."

In a speech at the RealNetworks conference Friday, Bronfman called for "a standard that balances one's right to privacy with the need to restrict anonymity."

The speech echoed last week's calls from an influential Democratic policy think tank to change copyright laws in a way that would also eliminate anonymity for people who wanted to use services such as Napster.

The developments are horrifying free-speech advocates who say that anonymity is part of the underpinnings of free-speech protection on the Net.

"If this wasn't some music company but was the Chinese government saying we need to restrict anonymity, everyone would recognize how dangerous this was," said David Sobel, general counsel for the Electronic Privacy Information Council, a Washington, D.C.-based lobbying organization.

The debate has been spurred most recently by the massive popularity of Napster and other services like it that allow thousands of people at a time to link their computers together and share their MP3 music collections. Record companies and individual artists have sued Napster, charging that the company is contributing to widespread copyright infringement.

But if the lawsuits are designed in part to shut down Napster as a company, it's the individuals trading files through the service who the industry really wants to stop. To do that requires tracing them, say the copyright holders.

This task isn't as difficult as popular Web mythology has made it out to be. Several tracking services already exist, such as NetPD and Media Enforcer, which allow artists to monitor who is swapping their songs online and gather the Web addresses and usernames of traders.

Hard rock band Metallica and rapper Dr. Dre have already provided Napster with the usernames of hundreds of thousands of people they say traded their songs online and asked the software company to boot them from its service.

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This kind of information could theoretically be traced to individuals using system logs of Internet service providers, in much the same way investigators track hackers and credit card thieves online.

But new services such as Freenet and ZeroKnowledge are being developed that will make this job much more difficult, masking individual traces online and distributing content more widely around the Net.

All of this is bad news for the idea of intellectual property online, critics say.

"If users are anonymous, then rights holders will have no one to sue," said Rob Atkinson, technology director for the Public Policy Institute, a branch of the centrist Democratic Leadership Council. "Napster says it's not their fault, but they should be required to hand over the people whose fault it is."

Atkinson's group made the first concrete anti-anonymity proposal last week, proposing that ISPs and other Net services be forced to collect information that personally identifies their subscribers or else be held responsible for those people's copyright violations.

The record companies themselves haven't made any solid legislative proposals. A Seagram spokeswoman said Bronfman's comments were intended to start a debate on the issue rather than create specific policy suggestions.

But privacy advocates are bracing for a fight.

"We see (anonymity) coming under attack by both the government and the private sector," Sobel said. "If there's one issue I could identify as the most significant policy area in the coming years, I'd say it would be anonymity."