ISPs protest copyright pact

CEOs of powerful Internet and communications firms ask President Clinton to reject a World Intellectual Property Organization treaty that makes service providers liable for copyright violations.

CNET News staff
2 min read
A group of CEOs from powerful Internet and communications companies have once again asked President Clinton to reject articles in a World Intellectual Property Organization treaty that makes service providers liable for their customers' copyright violations.

The administration has been flooded with letters from information providers, industry groups, and cyber-rights organizations expressing concerns about three WIPO treaties that would tighten existing copyright controls over the digital environment if adopted at the conference in Geneva.

The letter sent yesterday was signed by the CEOs of PSINet, America Online, Bell Atlantic, Bell South, CompuServe, MCI Communications, MFS Communications, Netcom, Nynex, Prodigy, and UUNet Technologies.

Steve Case,
chairman, CEO,
America Online
The letter attacks Articles 7 and 10 of the Basic Proposal for the Protection of Literary and Artistic Works, which would make Internet service providers and telephone carriers liable for copyright infringements that occur over their services, even if they are unaware of the violations. For example, the companies could be responsible if a customers' homepage contained unauthorized copyrighted pictures, text, audio, or video clips. Email could also include unauthorized reproduction.

"Such potential violations would force us to monitor third-party communications," the letter states. "Not only is this technically and economically impractical, it would require us to violate individual citizens' privacy rights."

Robert Massey,
president, CEO,
Proponents of the treaty, who include the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Microsoft, and IBM say the only goal of the international treaties is to clarify and reinforce existing U.S. copyright law and improve weak laws in other countries.

Interestingly, Microsoft has a strategic relationship with UUNet, an Internet service provider whose CEO signed the letter. Microsoft is also a minority investor in the company.

Most of the CEOs already belong to an industry group such as the Ad Hoc Copyright Coalition, which is fighting the a treaty, but they still fear that the administration is not listening to their pleas.

The CEOs don't want to become watchdogs over their customers' every move. Their letter warned the president that they'll assert their influence over Congress if he brings the treaty home.

Jocelyn Miceli, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Telephone Association, which helped draft the letter, said the companies she represents are willing to take down unlawful material if notified. But she noted that the treaty will stifle industry development if time and resources are spent policing customers.

"If the U.S. maintains its position, our companies won't have much of a choice but to severely slow down our position in the growth of the information superhighway."

Overall, there are three proposed treaties at the conference. Although they are related, each will be voted on separately. The details of each treaty are subject to debate and amendment during the three-week convention that ends December 20.