Obama admin. proposes wiretapping media pirates

By Stephen C. Webster
Friday, March 18, 2011 11:03 EDT
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In today’s media saturated age, savvy consumers have grown mindful of what’s on. But soon, you’ll also need to be sure of where that video came from too — or Uncle Sam might decide to listen in on your phone conversations.

That’s no joke: it’s actually just one in a series of the Obama administration’s proposed reforms to intellectual property laws, which could fundamentally change how people share audio and video on the Internet.

In the most dramatic among them, the president has asked Congress for the authority to wiretap suspects in copyright cases.

While the government is currently permitted to ask a court for a warrant in cases pertaining to theft of trade secrets and economic espionage, copyright and trademark crimes are not mentioned in present laws governing wiretaps.

“Wiretap authority for these intellectual property crimes, subject to the existing legal protections that apply to wiretaps for other types of crimes, would assist U.S. law enforcement agencies to effectively investigate those offenses, including targeting organized crime and the leaders and organizers of criminal enterprises,” the administration wrote.

In cases where a major raid is in the offings, the administration also proposed allowing authorities to share information with the copyright holder. They recommended that Congress pass legislation explicitly permitting that, which they felt could aid the interception of “circumvention devices” that break electronic locks on copyrighted materials.

One example of a “circumvention device” would be a game console modification chip. Once installed, these specially-designed, hobbyist wares allow users to play games from copied media, like a rewritable disc.

“[It] is illegal to import or traffic in devices that can be used to circumvent technological measures that control access to copyrighted works,” they wrote. “When DHS discovers the importation of a potential circumvention device, current law does not authorize DHS to share a sample with a rightholder to aid CBP in determining whether it is, in fact, a circumvention device. Allowing DHS to provide a sample would aid enforcement efforts.”

Should Congress accept this proposal and act upon it, future decisions — like the recent legal exceptions for iPhone hacking — may become increasingly rare.

That decision on iPhone hacking, issued by the Library of Congress, said it was “fair use” to break protections inside the iPhone to modify the software or use it on a different cellular carrier. The decision also permitted third party applications from sources that aren’t Apple’s app store, even though some third party stores have been known as a bastion for software piracy.

The Library of Congress also made an exception for hackers who disable copyright protection software embedded in video games, so long as it is for legitimate “fair use” purposes like testing the software or creating a backup of legally owned media.

It was unclear why the administration appeared to be taking a different stance on software circumvention than on hardware circumvention, as either can be used to accomplish the same ends.

The administration has also proposed making it a felony to stream copyrighted video over the Internet.

Read the administration’s proposals here (PDF).

Image credit: The Pirate Bay.

Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster
Stephen C. Webster is the senior editor of Raw Story, and is based out of Austin, Texas. He previously worked as the associate editor of The Lone Star Iconoclast in Crawford, Texas, where he covered state politics and the peace movement’s resurgence at the start of the Iraq war. Webster has also contributed to publications such as True/Slant, Austin Monthly, The Dallas Business Journal, The Dallas Morning News, Fort Worth Weekly, The News Connection and others. Follow him on Twitter at @StephenCWebster.
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