You Do Not Have the Right to Remain Silent

The jackbooted storm troopers crashed through the door with a force so quick and loud neighbors mistook it for a thunderclap, but there was not a cloud in the sky. These federal officers clearly meant business, using stealth and speed to get a jump on the thugs inside. The suspects were caught red-handed, sitting dumbfounded hunched over their newly acquired illicit materials. Our heroes had been surveying this group for weeks and had documented literally hundreds of incidents of illegal activity. The suspects were led away in handcuffs and the apartment was left quiet, except for the whirring desktop computer as a bootleg copy of “The Matrix: Reloaded” downloaded, documenting another misdeed against society

Far-fetched? Don’t dismiss it so fast. A recent article on The Wall Street Journal Online discusses how the Italian government recently started enforcing its version of the European Union copyright directive. This new law gives Italian authorities the right to search the email of anyone whose email address appears on a P2P file sharing network.

Italy’s Guardia di Finanza, a select set of heavily armed federal police officers who typically hunt smugglers and tax dodgers, have been charged with snooping by mirroring the email addresses of suspected file-sharers. They’ve identified 75 people who are now under investigation for copyright violation and receiving stolen goods. Each individual faces a fine of just over $1,200. An additional 3,000 suspect email addresses are waiting to be identified.

Of course, individuals who share files online rarely use their real email addresses to do so. The result? I could end up being investigated by the Italians if a Roman teenager were to decide to use my email address when signing up for the Italian version of Morpheus or KaZaA.

Think you’re safe downloading the sequel to “The Matrix” or the most recent Eminem album because you live in the United States? Think again. Just last week, Verizon lost a final federal court appeal and turned over the names of four subscribers to its high-speed Internet services. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) alleges they illegally offered songs other Internet users could download. Verizon fought the RIAA in court for over six months, defending its subscribers’ right to privacy and arguing it shouldn’t have to provide the names. Those subscribers may face stiff fines for their alleged illicit activities.

In early May, four college students agreed to pay as much as $17,000 each to the RIAA for creating Web sites that cataloged music and other files, making them available to other students. The RIAA warned legal damages associated with pirated music could reach $150,000 per infringed work.

I’m an advocate of the U.S. legal system. I firmly believe citizens should adhere to existing laws. The 1998 Digital Millennium Copyright Act was written to prevent copyright infringement from occurring in cyberspace. Although lawyers continue to debate the law’s merits in front of judges (who may or may not know what a browser or pop-up or blog is), the fact remains the law is on the books. Citizens desiring to stay out of grey and white stripes should avoid even the appearance of violating the law. If citizens believe the law is unjust, then citizens should take advantage of our unique form of government and propose changes to existing legislation. Never mind this is a laborious process and the common citizen is no match for the well-paid RIAA lobbyists who regularly rub elbows with elected officials on Capitol Hill.

The larger concern is how the basic right to privacy appears to be overlooked by the recent ruling. The RIAA can subpoena names and customer data of individual account holders without actually filing suit against those individuals. The name of any Verizon subscriber — any customer of any ISP for that matter — may be subpoenaed. The ISP must turn over the personal information or risk being found in violation of the law.

The implication is any corporation that suspects an individual Internet user of being up to no good could subpoena that person’s ISP to determine her identity for further investigation. Suspicion alone is enough to trigger a subpoena. That individual’s anonymity is thrown out the window, and the corporation is free to do with the personal information as it pleases.

It doesn’t stop with ISPs. Assume your business offers free email addresses to Web site registrants/customers. You could receive a subpoena from the RIAA requesting the personal information of some of your registrants with the justification they may be involved in illegal file swapping. If you feel the RIAA’s evidence is unconvincing and refuse to provide the information, you could end up in court, face to face with the RIAA attack dogs, um, attorneys. If your business provides email addresses to employees, you could find yourself in the same situation.

You could also take the “glass is half-full” approach. If you’re tired of not being able to turn your site visitors into customer leads, follow the RIAA’s example. Document the IP address of every visitor to your Web site, then submit a subpoena to the IP address owner requesting personal information on the individual to whom the IP address was assigned on the date and time of the visit. In no time, you’ll not only have the email addresses of your site visitors, you’ll have their names, addresses, and phone numbers. How’s that for lead generation?

Admittedly, there’s a fine line between protecting copyrights and protecting the customer privacy. As marketers, when customers do business with us or provide us their personal information for registration purposes, isn’t it our responsibility and obligation to protect their privacy? Despite the recent Verizon ruling, I remain unconvinced any nongovernmental entity has the right to force a business to violate their customers’ right to privacy.

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