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Posted at 05:10 PM ET, 03/16/2011

Is streaming a felony? And what’s this about wiretapping?

It’s the sort of thing that gets the Internet’s blood pumping: a list of proposed revisions to existing law to enhance the enforcement of copyright infringement. It comes in the form of the Administration’s White Paper on Intellectual Property Enforcement Legislative Restrictions, from intellectual property czar Victoria Espinel.

Intellectual property enforcement? Sounds good to me! Speaking as a Millennial, I respect other people’s intellectual property. That’s why I stream it, constantly, onto my computer — so that I may more perfectly respect it. The way I see it, if Sir Paul McCartney doesn’t mind that the Beatles’ “White Album” joined up with Jay-Z’s “Black Album” to create the Danger Mouse “Grey Album,” why should (EM)I? I recently watched a very compelling remix of “Downfall” in which someone made a similar point.

Sure, the Constitution protects property. But what about the Bill of Rights, where it states that as a member of Generation I, I have the right to get whatever I want online, whenever I want it, without paying anyone anything? That’s right there after freedom of religion, I think. If not, it’s certainly covered under cruel and unusual punishment, which would be anything that prevented my accessing the soundtrack of “Pocahontas” within thirty seconds of wanting to hear “Colors of the Wind.”

But I have to say, the proposal is oddly unspecific. Espinel asks Congress to clarify that “Infringement by streaming, or by means of other similar new technology, is a felony in appropriate circumstances.” I have heard less specific sentences from teenagers asked where they’d been until 2 in the morning on a school night. Sure, this is in response to the question of whether streaming constitutes performance of copyrighted works — which isn’t a felony — or distribution — which is. But what are the circumstances? And what is the other similar new technology? And can I still use it to listen to Lady Gaga for free? After all, I thought the recording industry was supposed to be coming up with a New Way of Making Money right about now.

And another suggestion in the white paper — that wiretapping authority be extended to intellectual property crimes — seems troubling, too. Wiretapping? For intellectual property violations? I know it “would assist U.S. law enforcement agencies to effectively investigate those offenses, including targeting organized crime and the leaders and organizers of criminal enterprises,” but so would ordinances that allow you to frisk anyone who has visited an Arby’s, even once, and you don’t see the White House asking for those.

Besides, call me a nervous Millennial (“Someone get Joseph Gordon-Levitt over here!”) but nothing ties my stomach in more knots than suggesting that Congress try to decide how to regulate the Internet. It can work, and sometimes it’s the only way, but consider: This is a body famed for its inability to act with any celerity on anything, a body that recently refused to acknowledge that Global Warming was happening (although I’m not sure an act of Congress to say that it thought Global Warming was happening would be worth any more than an act of Congress suggesting that Snooki put some pants on), a body comprised largely of people who did not grow up with the Internet and who consequently think we want to interact with them on Twitter.

Maybe if they do as requested and ratchet up enforcement power, the Internet will fall in line, and suddenly the benevolent anarchy of copyrighted material online will give way to orderly consumption from vetted entities. But maybe this will either backfire or backfire horribly. After all, the online world is a perpetually moving target, and measures that are too broad — or too inflexible — can have a chilling effect, or simply go unheeded.

And if the Internet is about anything, it’s about reappropriating content. Everything online, from news broadcasts to popular music, is ripped, parodied, played, mixed, replayed, remixed, and put into the mouths of babies, cats and Hitler. The Web is all about the unstoppable overflow of millions of creative minds, striving together to create something beautiful and transcendent — or, more likely, a video remix of a cat hitting a wall.

Many of the suggestions are not bad. But their combination of vagueness and stringency is a bit troubling. That’s why it’s worth making certain that we have considered online reality before handing anyone wiretapping power and making everything a felony. Or we might wind up with more scenarios like the ones where people find themselves facing jail after someone in their household downloaded some music off the Internet.

Yes, I’m from the generation that believes everything on the Internet should be free everywhere ever for all eternity until the sun explodes, which might be a strong position. But it’s still worth taking the time to clarify these requests. Clarification will certainly not harm the valid case to be made for enforcement — and it might prevent taking down otherwise law-abiding citizens.

Remember, there are two kinds of copyright infringement. The bad kind is when nebulous gangs of foreign mobsters surreptitiously obtain content and post it illegally online. The good kind is when I download that content for free and use it to make a parody video.

After all, the illegal online streaming of content is the only thing keeping me off the street.

By  |  05:10 PM ET, 03/16/2011

Tags:  Internet, kids these days, Congress

 
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