Congress threatens P2P networks on porn

Congress threatens P2P networks on porn

Summary: Senators say they don't want to rewrite copyright law--but they're peeved that kids can find porn on file-swapping networks.

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WASHINGTON--Congress remains reluctant to rewrite copyright law in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court's landmark decision on file-swapping--but Internet pornography on peer-to-peer networks is likely to be a legislative target this fall.

At a hearing convened Thursday by the U.S. Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said that she and a bipartisan group of senators were "very concerned" that peer-to-peer software makers were not taking "active steps" to stop copyright infringement by filtering pornography from minors using the software.

"If you don't move to protect copyright, if you don't move to protect our children, it's not going to sit well," Boxer said.

Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who chairs the committee, said he would be holding a hearing this fall geared toward illegal access to pornography through peer-to-peer software.

"We're going to get specific about this, pornography over the Internet. People tell me we can't do anything about it. I don't believe that."
--Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska

"We're going to get specific about this, pornography over the Internet," Stevens said. "People tell me we can't do anything about it. I don't believe that."

Both Boxer and Stevens indicated that they would continue to seek legislation related to requiring filters on peer-to-peer software clients.

But Adam Eisgrau, executive director of P2P United, told the senators that any claim of a "technological magic bullet" to filter out illicit content "is simply false."

Stevens took a combative tone with the panel, composed of six representatives spanning the entertainment industry, Internet service providers, venture capital firms and peer-to-peer software companies.

"It doesn't sound to me like there's any motivation here for a mechanism to bring about some standards for the future as far as these organizations are concerned," Stevens told the panel.

Congress' attempts to regulate Internet pornography have been mixed--and mostly rejected by the courts. One attempt, the Communications Decency Act, was unceremoniously overturned by the Supreme Court, while the Child Online Protection Act and a library filtering measure were better received.

Several senators have publicly praised the Grokster decision. Sen. Daniel Inouye, D-Hawaii, reiterated in his opening remarks that he applauded the decision, which he said "made it very clear that stealing is unacceptable." But even he joined his colleagues in asking what file-sharing companies were doing to discourage piracy.

Each of the panelists largely discouraged Congress from taking any immediate action on the matter.

The closest anyone came to a push for legislation was Eisgrau, who suggested that Congress should reform the system of awarding damages to copyright holders.

Copyright holders currently can sue technology companies, individual inventors and investors for up to $150,000 per work infringed, but Congress should think about erasing that burden in favor of providing copyright holders solely with actual damages, said Eisgrau, who was also speaking on behalf of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

Eisgrau recommended that Congress encourage the various stakeholders to come together "to intelligently and civilly discuss" a voluntary licensing system. He made clear that he was not suggesting that Congress impose a compulsory licensing system. (The idea is controversial. The Progress and Freedom Foundation, for instance, published a paper (PDF) this week warning of the dangers of compulsory licensing.)

Entertainment industry representatives said that the Grokster decision had placated their major concerns and dismissed the need for congressional action.

Said Fritz Attaway, executive vice president of the Motion Picture Association of America: "If ultimately this decision does not create the right atmosphere to deal with the piracy problem, then maybe Congress does need to act."

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