WASHINGTON — A proposal by a California congressman would give the entertainment industry broad new powers to try to stop people from downloading pirated music and movies off the Internet.
Rep. Howard L. Berman, D-Calif., formally proposed legislation that would give the industry unprecedented new authority to secretly hack into consumers' computers or knock them off-line entirely if they are caught downloading copyrighted material.
"There is no excuse or justification for this piracy," said Berman, the leading recipient in the House of campaign contributions from the television, music and movie industries. "Theft is theft, whether it is shoplifting a CD in a record store or illegally downloading a song."
Berman is the ranking Democrat on the House Judiciary subcommittee on courts, the Internet and intellectual property. Other sponsors of the measure include Reps. Howard Coble, R-N.C., Lamar Smith, R-Texas, and Robert Wexler, D-Fla. Coble has also received significant contributions from the entertainment industry.
Improved software and high-speed connections have made it easier than ever to freely trade music and movies online. And since the Napster music-trading service was shut down, file traders have moved to decentralized networks, leaving the industry with no single company or organization to sue to enforce copyrights.
The industry currently must trace downloaders individually and persuade their Internet providers to intervene. It also has resorted to seeding file-sharing networks with fake music files to frustrate users.
The new bill also shows the entertainment industry's frustration with slow-moving efforts by the computer industry to develop technological barriers to making electronic copies of songs and movies. Congressional leaders have said they preferred to wait for technological solutions before considering new copyright enforcement laws.
The head of the Recording Industry Association of America, Hilary Rosen, called the Berman bill an "innovative approach to combating the serious problem of Internet piracy."
"It makes sense to clarify existing laws to ensure that copyright owners ... are at least able to defend their works from mass piracy," Rosen said.
Berman said his bill would not allow industry to spread viruses across file-trading networks, destroy files or hack into a consumer's personal data, but experts said its language would permit intrusions into a consumer's audio and video files and attacks that would knock a computer off-line.
The proposal would lift civil and criminal penalties against entertainment companies "disabling, interfering with, blocking, diverting or otherwise impairing" the online trading of pirated songs and movies.
Wholesale attacks knocking an Internet user off-line would not be permitted "except as may be reasonably necessary" to prevent a copyright violation. Copyright owners would be required to explain in advance to the Justice Department the methods they intend to use against pirates.
The Motion Picture Association of America praised Berman's efforts but cautioned in a statement that "there are aspects of the bill we believe need changing."
Rep. Rick Boucher, R-Va., who has been active in copyright debates for years, said he was concerned that attacks against pirates could affect others online. He also expressed privacy concerns about companies hacking into computers during searches for illegal recordings.
"We have to consider what the effects of a number of these self-help measures would be on innocent network users," Boucher said. "If we are to give broad legal sanction to things like file-blocking, what is the effect of clogging that computer on other network users?"
Under the bill, companies would not be required to warn users in advance of their actions. A user wrongly attacked could sue only if he suffered more than $250 in economic losses and obtained permission to file a lawsuit from the U.S. attorney general.
Fred von Lohmann of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a civil liberties group, warned that the bill would allow zealous copyright owners to employ "all kinds of technical measures that will interfere with the functioning of the Internet."
Alan Davidson of the Center for Democracy and Technology said the legislation "provides a hunting license for copyright holders to seek out legitimate users of the Internet."
Records show Berman received at least $186,891 from the entertainment industry during the 2001-02 election cycle, including $31,000 from The Walt Disney Co. and $28,050 from AOL-Time Warner Inc