DEC 2001/JAN 2002

Download Clampdown

A few weeks ago, right after the September 11 incident, I saw a sign held high at a football game that exclaimed, "They Can’t Take Our Freedom." I felt this sentiment with irony. Of course those who flew the planes into the buildings around the country might be able to take our lives, but surely they couldn’t take away our freedoms. But now without irony and under the guise of "defeating terrorism," with the passage of the "Patriot Act (House of Representatives, 357-66; Senate, 98-1) it seems that our government is indeed doing just what so many felt the September 11th perpetrators were trying to do: taking away our freedom!

With the passage of this sweeping and breath-taking Act virtually any law enforcement agency has broad unchecked authority to tap any number of phones using something called a "roving wiretap" warrant. These agencies now have the authority to seek out and view private email using "Carnivore," a software snooping package. They can track activity of your Internet use, see who’s been visiting which web sites, and declare one a terrorist simply because of these visits.

Central to the passing of this "Patriot Act" are two troublesome assumptions. The first is that the "other—in this case mainly non-whites of middle eastern decent (although some southern Asians, Hispanics and African Americans are marked as well)—is an a priori enemy of the U.S. and therefore, logically subject to the abridgement of all rights and values that define us as a humane, reasonable, law-abiding nation. The second assumption is that the "other" is anyone who has a contravening ideological position to those enforcing the provisos of the Act. This is to say that merely speaking out against the action in Afghanistan is grounds to be declared a terrorist and thus subject to the restrictions of the Act.

The really scary implication of this Act is not that they’re going to read all the spam and dribble I receive daily in my email box, but instead that they can get into my box without my permission or knowledge in the first place. My feeling is, if they can get into my box, they can take anything out or worse, add anything they want, such as permanent ease-dropping software, "implicating" evidence or mechanisms that will block us from viewing sites or downloading information from these sites. The idea that we have no freedom of privacy, that if we acquire something to read, listen to or share for our own private use we are seen as the enemy, is one of the scariest implication of the entire Act.

This guilty-by-association mindset, that is, "if you’re not with us against terrorism, you’re a terrorist" has now gone beyond issues of national defense. Now it has moved over into the area of commerce. According to the major recording companies, film and video producers, and print media representatives, the maxim should be "if you’re not with us against downloading, you’re a terrorist." With the aid of South Carolina Senator Fritz Hollings, who just so happens to have received over $280,000 from these same media companies over the past seven years, and Arkansas Senator Ted Stevens, it may soon become illegal for you to download or use virtually any digital information, in the way you now may do.

The Security Systems Standards and Certification Act (SSSCA) proposed by Hollings and Stevens would make it unlawful (with fines up to $500,000) for companies to manufacture, sell or traffic "any" interactive digital device (computers, MP3 players, cell phones to name a current few) that do not include and utilize federally mandated "Digital Right Management"(DRM) copy-prevention systems. What this means is that if the media companies have their way (Disney, Viacom, Time Warner, and The Recording Industry Association of America (the group that killed Napster) and The Motion Picture Association of America), hardware and software manufacturers will have to assure the government that any copy protection scheme imposed by information holders (record companies, film producers and print producers) which is approved by the Commerce Department cannot be legally side-stepped. Digital material, not just copy-written material, will be constructed in such a way—it could be special codes found within compact discs and DVD’s data streams that prevent personal copying or noise purposely introduced into CDs that will only be heard on legally copied CDs—as to make it impossible for you to make music compilations for private use or even educational use. There are absolutely no provisions within the current bill for fair-use considerations or any other rights reserved for the public by copyright law. If anyone tries to thwart the copy-protection mechanism they too could be fined and jailed.

The scope of this bill is staggering. Because the SSSCA forces companies to add support for copy and use restrictions into virtually all future digital technology, besides computers and software products many non-computer technologies like cell phones, digital cameras, digital fax machines will be inexplicably altered. No more tunes tinkling in the background of your phone message machines. No more Global Position System receivers (hey, that info is digital). Certainly no more MP3 players. What’s left are only those things and areas where the media companies have full control over how the consumer may use the digital content, no matter if you paid for it or not! As written, this bill is a huge case of the big fat canary eating the puddy tat!

Not to suggest that this Security Systems Standards and Certification Act has anything to do directly with the September 11 incident, but it does seem that the call by Hollings and Stevens at this particular moment is jumping on the fortuitous bandwagon. When a huge percentage of Americans see the infringement of our civil rights positively acceptably and the majority of people in this country see nothing wrong with the government ease-dropping on conversations between an attorney and his/her client, I’m convinced the media information holders-the record and video companies-feel this is the perfect time to make sure one more of our inalienable rights—the right to use something we own in any manner we privately choose—is forever lost.

Under better democratic times I would suggest contacting your congressional legislators to stop this silly and dangerous bill. But hey, who cares if we infringe people’s rights? They’re just terrorists!

DEC 2001/JAN 2002

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