You're returning to the U.S. from a quick trip to Canada. A customs official says he wants to examine your laptop. You boot it for him and he finds (gasp!) a bootlegged copy of Allen Toussaint's new CD. "Sorry, sir, we'll have to hold on to that."
Just like that, your MacBook is the property of the U.S. government and you're out $1,600. Or maybe it becomes known that you've shared music or an old version of WordPerfect online. Good-bye Internet account.
That couldn't happen today. But Hollywood and the software industry are in a lather about piracy, so they're pushing a draconian, international agreement that could make those ugly scenarios an everyday occurrence.
[ InfoWorld's Robert X. Cringely has choice words on current antipiracy measures in his blog post, "The wrong arm of the law" | Keep up on the day's tech news headlines with InfoWorld's Today's Headlines: First Look newsletter and InfoWorld Daily podcast. ]
Called the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA), the new plan would see the United States, Canada, members of the European Union, Japan, South Korea, Mexico, New Zealand, and Switzerland form an international coalition against copyright infringement. What's making groups like the Electronic Frontier Foundation especially nervous is the veil of secrecy around the negotiations. In fact, it took some well-placed leaks and a Freedom of Information Act request to find out the most basic details of the plan. (Anything to do with regulation by the EU makes me nervous as well. Remember the crackdown on ugly vegetables?)
A year ago, Wikileaks obtained and posted a copy of an internal discussion paper that laid out some of the avenues the international bureaucrats were pursing. Check it out -- and be sure to note the section about border controls and the seizure and destruction of property.
Software piracy is a legitimate concern
Before going further, I'll stipulate that piracy and counterfeiting software are real problems. I write for a living, many of the people I write about create code for a living, and some of my friends are professional musicians. So I'm not at all opposed to the protection of content. We deserve to profit from our labor and so do our employers.
Just this week, the Business Software Association, in conjunction with IDC (a research company owned by InfoWorld's parent) released a study about software piracy. It claims that losses to world economy attributed to software piracy increased by 5 percent (excluding currency fluctuations) last year to $50.2 billion.
I'm always skeptical of studies funded by organizations looking to make a point. But IDC is a reputable outfit, and even if the study's findings are somewhat inflated, a lot of money is obviously being taken off the table. Walk around a marketplace in Asia, as I did last year, or do a little shopping on Craigslist or eBay and you'll find astonishing collections of obviously pirated software applications, not to mention videos and music CDs.
Interestingly, though, the study found that in 2008 the rate of PC software piracy dropped in about half (48) of the 110 countries studied, remained the same in about a third (36), and rose in just 16. Even in China, the poster child for software piracy, the rip-off rate has dropped some 10 percentage points since 2004, 6 points in India and Brazil, and 15 points in Russia.
Clearly then, antipiracy measures are working. And working pretty well. But the BSA, which represents the software industry, still favors ACTA. And some of the worst offenders -- countries like Georgia and Zimbabwe where they say 90 percent of the software deployed is pirated (not to mention parts of Eastern Europe) -- aren't part of the trade negotiations. So why crack down so hard on people in countries where piracy is declining?
You could lose your Internet connection -- without a trial
Last September, a coalition of more than 20 organizations, including the American Library Association, the Consumer Electronics Association, Intel, and Yahoo, submitted comments to the U.S. trade representative about ACTA. The comments expressed concern that elements of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) could be included in ACTA without any of the safeguards available under the DMCA.
For example, while the language in the DMCA gives Internet service providers some latitude in deciding whether to terminate Internet access to online copyright infringers, ACTA could result in laws requiring ISPs to automatically disconnect infringers without any discretion, the note warned. While the DMCA leaves the decision to install traffic- and user-monitoring systems largely up to ISPs, ACTA could make such systems mandatory, they said. Seem far-fetched? It's already happening: France this week approved a law cutting off Internet accounts for people found to have made illegal downloads three times.
Great -- one more layer of intrusive, heavy-handed regulation sponsored by the geniuses of the music and movie industries, and the folks that want to protect Europeans from misshapen bananas.
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This story, "Share a File, Lose Your Laptop?" was originally published by InfoWorld.