Gloves off in music wars

The next big threat to your PC is about to be unleashed. It doesn't come from shady crackers, Bulgarian virus factories or wannabe script kiddies. This hacking monster comes courtesy of corporate America.

Last month the New York Times reported that in an effort to stop what they claim is a deluge of illicit file sharing, the big five record companies are exploring "piracy countermeasures". The most benign simply redirects users to websites where they can legitimately purchase the song they tried to download. A more malicious one nicknamed "freeze" locks up the computer for a fixed period of time, risking any unsaved data if the PC is manually rebooted. A third, which simply deletes any music files it finds, has been sent back for reworking because it was nuking legitimately purchased music files. Then there are the schemes termed "interdictions" that focus on attacking and taking down your internet connection if you attempt to access unauthorised tunes. Let's be clear about these programs. However justified the recording industry feels in deploying them, however euphemistically it couches their functionality, they are nothing more than Trojans, worms, viruses and Denial of Service attacks. For supposedly responsible corporations to even be considering such tactics is appalling. And they can only have one effect: a virus war.

Consider how quickly the connected community reacts to threats now. Within hours of an outbreak, virus researchers around the world are analysing the code and posting patches. Though the "counter- measures" might be officially sanctioned, there's no reason to suspect that music sharing communities are going to be any less proactive. I doubt much time will elapse between the first "freeze" file being identified and a patch being posted. And I quite expect the record companies are anticipating that as well.

That implies not just one "freeze" program but dozens, perhaps even hundreds. It implies the use of the deep stealth techniques and mutating virus engines that were talked about with fear and loathing in the late 90s. Do we really want to sanction this sort of thing? Because even a cursory glance at malware history shows how a successful virus rapidly generates an army of clones. There's not just one "I Love You" or "Melissa", there are dozens, of varying destructiveness and malignancy. How long before we have an embarrassed Sony official explaining that it wasn't the Sony "inter-diction" program that took out half the internet but some nasty cracker's corruption of it? How long before a permanent version of "freeze" turns up in your email?

And as we've seen with software licensces that grant vendors the right to untrammelled access to your machine, the "what's-good-enough-for-them-is-good-enough-for-us" mentality rapidly takes hold. Is it possible that Norton Antivirus will be programmed to deflect everything but the Norton Antivirus Virus (activated only after your annual licence expires)?

It may just be a coincidence but the New York Times report came out a week after a District Court judge ruled that the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) couldn't hold companies that make peer-to-peer file sharing software liable for the copyright infringements of their users. The companies concerned, Grokster and Streamcast (makers of Morpheus) were, in the judge's words, "not significantly different from companies that sell home video recorders or copy machines, both of which can be and are used to infringe copyrights".

There's no easy answer to the downloading debate but threats, lawsuits and hysterical over-reaction certainly don't help. (Back in April the RIAA claimed that four students who'd set up file sharing networks at their universities were liable for $US97 trillion in damages. )The first step, surely, has to be an objective assessment of the problem. The recording industry, like the software industry, is quick to come up with enormous numbers and bewail their losses but are far less keen to let independent researchers check their figures. Are music sales really falling or are labels simply pushing fewer new artists? Are people downloading because, having discovered a much broader range via the internet, they're frustrated at trying to find anything but the top 200 in their local record shops? And at what price-point does downloading become too much hassle? Would you bother to hunt out, download, assemble and burn the latest Madonna album if you could pick it up legally for $10?

In the mid-60s the compact cassette was supposed to destroy the music industry in much the same way that TV then the video recorder was going to destroy cinemas. Neither's happened yet. But then the industries concerned didn't turn themselves into virusmongers, either.

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