If you didn't already know, the US Supreme Court is currently (March 2005) considering legal arguments that might mean that on the Internet of the future every file is fingerprinted, every user is tagged and every transaction is monitored.
Who will be doing this monitoring? The FBI? CIA? NSA? MI5?
Nope, the US entertainment industry will have its eyes on everything you do on the Internet in order to protect its copyrights.
Under discussion is the so-called 'Betamax ruling'. Way back in 1984 it was established that the home video recorder was legal because it had uses other than infringing copyright. (The movie industry, which once sought to protect itself from this 'evil', now makes most of its money from videos and DVDs.)
But now the problem is file sharing networks such as Grokster and Streamcast. Plainly these networks are used massively for copyright infringing activities. But does that make them illegal in themselves? According to the Betamax ruling, not if they also have legitimate uses. And of course they do have legitimate uses.
A musician for instance could put his or her work on a network for free download. This doesn't mean that they have given up their copyright, just that they have chosen to give users a free license. This of course is absolutely legal and not even the entertainment industry could argue that (or could they, in their distorted world populated by lawyers and accountants?).
The argument that the entertainment industry uses is that illegal downloads stifle future production. This is a reasonable argument and deserves to be heard. But some would say it has already been heard and overruled back in 1984.
OK, things might look bad for the entertainment industry. But if file sharing networks are declared illegal, then that is laying down the foundations for something far worse.
Imagine being a software developer, and now because of this ruling you have to consider in advance whether your products could be used for illegal purposes. Never mind that 99.99% of its purchasers will use it totally legally, you are now liable for the 0.01% that will use it for nefarious deeds.
So maybe it's better just not to develop that software because if things go wrong you could land yourself with claims for millions of dollars worth of damages. Maybe even punitive damages too.
And how will the Internet be policed to make sure no-one is getting up to anything illegal? That's right – every file has to be fingerprinted, every user tagged and every transaction monitored. By the RIAA and MPA.
It is interesting that the computer industry suffers from illegal file sharing (that's illegal sharing, not legal sharing and currently not the networks) just like the entertainment industry. But companies such as Intel Corp., Verizon Communications Inc. and Apple Computer Inc. have come to court on the side of the Betamax ruling. They know that to place draconian controls on software companies will severely affect the profitability of their businesses in the future. And on technological developments from which we all benefit. (If the entertainment industry had been a little more sharp witted, perhaps they would have tried to get the entire Internet declared illegal the moment it was invented).
If the challenge to the Betamax ruling is successful, then it leads to the position where anything with a potentially illegal use is itself illegal. So your guitar could be used to play a copyright song without permission. Your kitchen cutlery could be used for assault or murder. Your scanner could be used to copy books, magazines or newspapers. The list is endless.
It's ironic that the Betamax ruling was made in 1984. George Orwell only got the date wrong.