Several of the world's largest high-tech corporations plan to urge Congress today to force Internet service providers to crack down more aggressively on their users who swap copyrighted software, music or video files online.
The move is a significant escalation in the campaign by the software and entertainment industries to squelch widespread file sharing by millions of users through services such as Kazaa, Grokster and Morpheus. If successful, it could reshape a long legal tradition of shielding phone, cable and other communications companies from liability for the actions of their customers.
Although members of the Business Software Alliance, including Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp., Intel Corp. and Adobe Systems Inc., have not suffered losses from illegal file sharing as great as the entertainment industry's, they believe the problem will only worsen as technology improves and more people get high-speed Internet access.
Generally, the only way for companies to learn the names of suspected file traders is to file a lawsuit, a step technology companies would prefer to avoid, said Bruce Chizen, chief executive of Adobe, which makes the popular Photoshop editing program. The Recording Industry Association of America has so far sued 7,700 file swappers in hopes of scaring away others, a strategy that has angered many music fans.
Instead, Chizen and BSA officials want Congress to secure the cooperation of Internet service providers by amending the 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which was designed to address potential copyright violations in the electronic age. They say changes are necessary because the original statute was enacted before services took root allowing computer users to swap songs, software and other digital material on a massive scale.
The campaign to modify the law is part of a broader effort by the BSA to address a variety of copyright and patent issues. In a report to be released today, the group outlines its concerns but offers no specifics on how the 1998 law should be changed. But in an interview, Chizen and BSA Executive Director Robert Holleyman said Internet service providers should no longer enjoy blanket immunity from liability for piracy by users.
Without cooperation from Internet providers such as America Online, Verizon, Comcast Corp. and others, Chizen said, it can be difficult to track down the names of file swappers, who often can be identified only by their numeric computer addresses. Under current law, communications companies have to provide the names of the account holders who match those addresses only if they receive a subpoena as part of a lawsuit targeting a user.
"If they [online providers] don't have to, they don't want to do the work," Chizen said.
Holleyman and Chizen said they want to work with Internet providers to reshape the law, but that did not calm ISP officials and privacy advocates.
"The best policy is not to have the service provider become Big Brother," said Sarah B. Deutsch, associate general counsel of Verizon, which has successfully challenged RIAA efforts to compel the company to turn over names of suspected file sharers even when no lawsuits have been filed.