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P2P foes defend hacking bill

Supporters angrily defend a proposed law that would permit copyright holders to assail peer-to-peer networks, saying it has been mischaracterized by opponents.

WASHINGTON--Supporters of a proposed law that would permit copyright holders to assail peer-to-peer networks angrily defended it on Thursday, saying it had been mischaracterized by opponents.

During the first congressional hearing on the bill, Reps. Howard Berman, D-Calif., and Howard Coble, R-N.C., denounced critics' "scare tactics" and said their proposal was a modest plan that had been carefully crafted to reduce piracy on peer-to-peer networks.

"There have been some truly outrageous attacks," Berman said. "I never expected that anyone would challenge the underlying premise of the bill, namely that copyrighted owners should be able to use reasonable, limited measures to thwart peer-to-peer piracy."

Berman's aides wrote the bill, which has been applauded by the entertainment industry almost as much as it has been reviled among technology and communications companies. While some copyright laws enacted in the 1990s targeted the Web, this bill represents Congress' first attempt to restrict ever-increasing file sharing on peer-to-peer networks.

According to the P2P Piracy Prevention Act, copyright holders would have the right to disable, interfere with, block, or otherwise impair a peer-to-peer node that they suspect is distributing their intellectual property without permission. The bill doesn't specify what techniques--such as viruses, worms, denial-of-service attacks, or domain name hijacking--would be permissible. It does say that a copyright-hacker should not delete files, but it limits the right of anyone subject to an intrusion to sue if files are accidentally erased.

Criticism of the bill has centered around two arguments: Nowhere does it specify what kind of technological attacks would be permissible, nor does it provide sufficient recourse if a computer is unreasonably targeted. Fearing that they may bear the brunt of electronic attacks, Internet providers have joined civil liberties groups in opposition to the proposal.

Coble, who chairs the House subcommittee that oversees copyright law and who convened Thursday's hearing, complained about "vague misinformation that's going around."

"I've never received such notoriety from a bill that I did not introduce," Coble said. "But if Howard Berman asked me today to co-sponsor it, I would do it again. It is our responsibility to promote efforts to reduce infringement or piracy of intellectual property."

Coble added, "Actually, Howard, when I decided to co-sponsor your bill, I thought it was relatively noncontroversial. But there are others who don't share your convictions about property rights and are currently attempting to march me into the woods for political re-education."

Most members of the subcommittee appeared to support the bill, and three of the four witnesses invited to testify welcomed it.

"There has been a lot of misinformation about this bill," said Hilary Rosen, CEO of the Recording Industry Association of America. "Some have characterized it as allowing copyright vigilantism or letting record companies and movie studios hack into people's computers and crash networks. These irresponsible descriptions at best reveal a misunderstanding of the text and purpose of the bill, and at worst purposely cloud the real issues."

Peer-to-peer crackdown
Randy Saaf, president of an anti-piracy firm called MediaDefender, told the panel that he offered customers two ways to target peer-to-peer piracy: Clogging pirates' outgoing connections, and spoofing networks by distributing files with misleading titles.

"If legal minds believe the current draft of the legislation leaves too much room for abuse, it should be redrafted," Saaf said. "However, the concept should not be abandoned because one thing is certain: P2P technology will continue to improve, and illegal downloading of copyrighted material will only get easier."

Gigi Sohn, president of the Public Knowledge nonprofit group, was the only opponent asked to testify. Under harsh questioning from the panel, Sohn stressed that she was not a copyright abolitionist and believed that there was a role for government in punishing widespread infringement.

But, Sohn said, the Berman-Coble bill went too far and could lead to unintended consequences, including targeting perfectly legal material. Rep. Rick Boucher, D-Va., a leading critic of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act and other recent copyright laws, has raised the same point.

"The door (would be) wide open for abuse by the copyright owner and harm to computer users," Sohn said. "For example, the limitations on altering and deleting files...conceivably would not prevent a copyright owner from cutting a user's DSL (digital subscriber line) or even his phone line or knocking his satellite dish off his roof."

In a July opinion article for CNET, Berman said it was time to crack down on peer-to-peer pirates. "There is no excuse or justification for P2P piracy. Of course, consumers would like free music at the click of a mouse," he said. "They would also like gasoline for less than $1 dollar a gallon. But we don't confiscate people's property and pass it out because people want it for free."