Sept. 11, 2001, most folks agree in principle that we ought
to be on a heightened state of alert. There are bad people
who want to get us: They’ve shown they can do it, and stopping
them before they do it again is a good thing.
And when we tell the government to circle the wagons, it’s
to be expected that mistakes will be made. There will be overreaching,
and rights will get stepped on. It’s inevitable. But it is
the citizens’ job to tell the government when it has gone
too far, because the government isn’t equipped to stop itself.
Like a nasty fungus or a bad roommate, the government will
expand to fill any available space. Along the way, the government
will gobble up everything in sight—including fundamental rights—until
somebody stands up to the inertia and says “stop that.”
This column is supposed to be about intellectual-property
issues, so why am I harping about the “war on terror”? Because
the two things have become joined.
Last week, a multilevel governmental strike force, apparently
led by the Department of Homeland Security, shut down the
Elite Torrents Web site, where bit- torrent-based peer-to-peer
file trading was taking place. (Bit torrent is a new and superfast
peer-to-peer networking technology.) If you go to www.elitetorrents.org,
you will see, between the official seals of the Department
of Homeland Security and the FBI, the following message: THIS
SITE HAS BEEN PERMANENTLY SHUT DOWN BY THE FEDERAL BUREAU
OF INVESTIGATION AND U.S. CUSTOMS AND IMMIGRATION ENFORCEMENT.
Those running the Elite Torrents site are being criminally
prosecuted by the Federal Department of Justice.
Maybe I’m missing something here, and I hope that I am, but
the Department of Homeland Security (according to its Web
site, www.dms.gov) “has three primary missions: Prevent terrorist
attacks within the United States, reduce America’s vulnerability
to terrorism, and minimize the damage from potential attacks
and natural disasters.” And Elite Torrents was allowing the
free distribution of copyrighted materials over the ’Net.
According to news reports, Elite Torrents made the new Star
Wars movie Revenge of the Sith available six hours
before the movie’s premiere, and was responsible for more
than 10,000 downloads of the movie before the site was shut
One of these days I’ll discuss the legal ins and outs of file
sharing over the Web, but suffice it to say that right now
in this country, downloading free music, movies, and software
without the copyright owners’ permission is a lot more illegal
than legal, and it’s likely to stay that way. So the folks
running Elite Torrents should have had an inkling that posting
new movies—especially Revenge of the Sith—for free
download on the Web would bring the wrath of the Motion Picture
Association of America (MPAA) raining down upon them. The
MPAA has always been super-aggressive against piracy and counterfeit
goods, and of course it’s going to be absolutely tenacious
as technology begins to allow for the quick and easy transfer
of movie-sized files on the Web.
But the Department of Homeland Security? What are they doing
here? Shouldn’t they be doing things like making sure some
fanatic doesn’t bazooka a chemical plant or fly another plane
into a building? Are we supposed to feel safer because geeky
college kids can’t download pirated Star Wars movies any more?
What’s particularly distressing here is that we’re talking
about the movement of information. OK, pirated information,
but information all the same, and fairly benign information
at that. Yeah, piracy’s a bad thing, and infringement can
often be a bad thing, but frankly, not always. There are civil
penalties for piracy and infringement, and if the activities
are bad and systematic enough, there are criminal penalties
as well. There have always been policies and processes to
punish bad guys.
But it appears that the resources that are supposed to be
used to keep the country safe are being used instead to keep
the information industry happy and profitable. And beefed-up
laws and mandates that were supposed to be used against enemies
of the state—you know, the freakin’ evildoers—are being
used against, at best, high-tech common criminals.
Dwight D. Eisenhower wasn’t a flaming liberal, and nobody
ever accused him of being unpatriotic. Eisenhower warned in
1961, in his last speech as president, that the titans of
national defense and of business, if allowed to run together,
could nibble away at normal citizens’ basic liberties until
the liberties were all gone:
the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition
of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the
military-industrial complex. The potential for the disastrous
rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.
must never let the weight of this combination endanger our
liberties or democratic processes. We should take nothing
for granted. Only an alert and knowledgeable citizenry can
compel the proper meshing of the huge industrial and military
machinery of defense with our peaceful methods and goals,
so that security and liberty may prosper together.”