An hour and 20 minutes into a session of the Senate Judiciary Committee, the audience was stunned into silence. Destroying hackers' computers "may be the only way you can teach somebody about copyrights," thundered the committee chairman, Republican Orrin Hatch of Utah. The participants at the hearing fell mute.
No, they weren't dreaming. Hatch proposed a law that would allow music, movie and software companies to use remote software to destroy user computers on which illegal files such as MP3s are found. There was no excuse for copyright violations, he said.
"He was probably speaking metaphorically," said a spokesman for the music companies association, who didn't believe that someone could be more radical than the association itself, which shut down Napster, sues users and brutally attacks anything that smells of file-swapping.
But Hatch was completely serious, and had good reasons for being so. For those who don't know, Hatch is a gifted poet. His Web site says that already as a young man, he began playing the piano, organ and violin. When he was in college, he wrote poetry for pleasure.
In 1996, he was approached by singer Janice Kapp-Perry, who asked him to write her a few songs. The senator sat down, and in one weekend, penned no fewer than 10 songs, all of which feature on Kapp-Perry's album, "My God is Love." Since then, he's written her another 300 songs.
This is why it's hardly surprising that Hatch wants to put Web travelers' computers in front of a firing squad the minute it turns out they are involved in piracy.
But Hatch got caught in a flap the minute he completed his statement in the Senate. A network administration in Houston examined Hatch's Web site and found that the honorable senator uses a drop-down menu application without paying for it. In addition, one of the links on his site points to another site, MyUtahSearch.com, which is not an innocent search engine, but one of the most hard-core porn sites on the Net.
Hatch's spokesman was asked by wired.net what he thought about the senator's computer being up for extermination. "It's pretty ironic," the spokesman said, before pulling himself together and adding that it was probably the Web site developer's fault and that the senator was unaware of the matter.
But isn't this exactly what Hatch had in mind? According to his proposal, companies would be allowed to remotely destroy a person's property without any legal procedure, hearing or clarification.
What would happen to computers in American public schools in which pupils customarily download music through file-sharing applications such as Kazaa? What would Hatch do if it turned out the organizations trying to stamp out software piracy were wrong? BSA, which Microsoft and other companies use to wage war on software piracy, occasionally sends out erroneous messages threatening law suits. Messages like these sometimes go out to people who store a copy of Open Office on their machines, only because BSA mistakenly believes that it is a version of Microsoft Office.
And what would parents who let their kids play with the computer do? How would they feel when the electrical shock zaps their CPU only because their child downloaded Orrin Hatch's hit song, "God Counts Every Tear"?
"We didn't know," the shocked parents would say. Isn't this the exact same excuse given by Hatch's spokesman?
Hypocrisy is an ugly characteristic, especially when it is so obvious. But more than being hypocritical, Hatch's proposal is stupid and violent. And if Hatch is bothered by people downloading the songs he wrote instead of paying for them, thereby violating his copyright and harming his livelihood, he can relax. Over three days of searching at Kazaa, not one of his songs was found stored on any of the millions of users' computers.
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