“Share your music—lose your identity.” It could be the rallying cry of a hipper-than-thou music fan who only likes bands “before they were cool.” But no, it's the title of an op-ed by Representative Howard Coble (R-NC), Ranking Member of the House IP Subcommittee. In it, he links copyright infringement with the risk of identity theft.
Specifically, he cites the example of Gregory Kopiloff, who pled guilty to committing identity theft with personal information he scrounged off of the computers of LimeWire users.
Coble then proceeds with his commentary, implicitly equating this security risk with both copyright infringement and p2p software generally. This is a real mistake, and a real cause for concern if that's the attitude policymakers take when approaching online copyright enforcement.
First of all, while identity theft is a real threat, and while people can and have used LimeWire for that purpose, p2p in and of itself doesn't represent a security vulnerability any more than any other protocol that is used to exchange information. A client, like earlier versions of LimeWire, that shared all files on the hard drive, is dumb software design, but dumb software design, as I've noted before, isn't limited to p2p applications.
The Seattle Times article I've linked above cites a search warrant to claim that, even with a decently designed application, viruses can “effectively expand access to [other] areas of the disk drive.” Of course, having a p2p application on your computer certainly isn't a prerequisite for any virus exploiting any application that transmits data off of your hard drive. This can happen with e-mail, instant messaging, regular network filesharing, web browsing, and even digital picture frames.
So why the focus on p2p? Obviously, the idea is to put copyright infringers on notice that what they're doing is not only illegal, but against the best interests of their financial health. The thing is, not only is it a weak argument against copyright infringement (since lots of people who aren't infringing are still vulnerable via those insidious web browsers and digital picture frames); it also paints all p2p with a bad brush that it doesn't deserve.
P2p is a manner of transferring data; it's not an infringement-only protocol. Software giants like Microsoft and Sun provide software tools for using p2p precisely because it's a good way for developers to share large files and updates. Like any manner of transferring files, it can be used to infringe copyright, just like with e-mail, instant messaging, regular network filesharing, web browsing, and yes, even those lovely digital picture frames.
The problem with Coble's focus on this protocol, simply because of what can be done with it, is the next step he takes in his op-ed. He approvingly cites universities who cut off students' Internet access for alleged filesharing, praising schools like Ohio University for:
installing a technology that identifies computers engaged in sharing unauthorized copyrighted media and then disconnects them from the university network.
Coble's equating of p2p and infringement couldn't be clearer from his use of this example. Ohio University, after all, famously banned all p2p applications, regardless of their purpose or use from campus last year.
There's an interesting parallel between the conclusion that all p2p applications, since they can be used for infringement, must be blocked, and the conclusion that copyright infringers, since they have infringed via the Internet, must be kicked off the 'net.
This parallel is a perilously narrow view of the purposes of communication technologies. Telling a lie in public may result in penalties, but those penalties should never silence the offender by preventing him from speaking publicly again. But that is exactly what such policies do.
As PK noted in its comments to the European Commission on the French “three-strikes” plan, basic needs and proportionality of punishment require that communication resources be open to all, even to convicted (much less alleged)offenders.