An industry coalition of leading software vendors and Internet service providers has issued a warning about a proposed international copyright treaty that it says could threaten the growth of the Internet.
The Ad Hoc Copyright Coalition said in a statement released last night that the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) is considering a treaty that would tighten existing copyright controls over the digital environment. WIPO, a United Nations agency based in Switzerland, will discuss the issue at a conference in Geneva that begins December 2.
But the coalition of technology companies, which includes AT&T, MCI, Netscape Communications, America Online, and the U.S. Telephone Association, fears the treaty may force Net and online service providers to become watchdogs for copyright infringement on their networks.
"This treaty, if enacted, would put much of the burden for policing for copy infringement on online service providers," Marc Brailov, a spokesman for MCI, said today. "We are here to distribute and transmit electronic information without regard to content."
Yesterday's press release was issued by MCI on behalf of the coalition of vendors. Netscape and AT&T officials could not be reached for comment. Officials at WIPO in Switzerland could not be reached for comment.
Although the language of the treaty does not specifically mention the Internet, the Ad Hoc Copyright Coalition and online civil rights advocates say the proposal is aimed squarely at online copyright infringement. They fear the treaty would make them liable for distributing materials that violate copyright laws. For example, MCI said that the treaty could make it illegal to operate a router or news server that transmits a copyrighted book.
Opponents of the proposed treaty say they respect intellectual property laws but the WIPO should not target online services and ISPs. Instead, they say, the WIPO should target the people who actually infringe on copyrights. "It would be technically impossible to monitor all that information for infringement," said MCI's Brailov. "This treaty imposes liability on us. To police this would require us to push the envelope of privacy."
Last month, ISPs raised the same objections to a move by the Software Publishers Association to prosecute several providers whose networks contain software or information that violates copyright laws or hyperlinks to sites that violate copyright laws. The Association has asked more than 20 ISPs to sign a "code of conduct" that asks them to police their networks for copyright infringements.
According to Mike Godwin, staff counsel for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the WIPO treaty could seriously stifle free speech on the Internet, and it incorrectly assumes that the average user is violating all kinds of copyrights.
"That theory is like making laws about the phone system that assume everyone will make obscene phone calls," Godwin said.
Interestingly, Godwin said, the WIPO treaty has created a rare accord between network providers and privacy advocates.
"This is one of those cases where you have civil libertarians and free speech advocates on the one hand and larger carriers on the other hand in total agreement," he said.
The argument is reminiscent of the fight against the Communications Decency Act, which proposes regulation of salacious content on the Net. ISPs and free speech advocates alike argued that the network providers shouldn't be forced to police the material flowing over their Net connections or turn in customers who allegedly violate decency laws.