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The blunt sword of legislation

Minnesota's Senator Klobuchar has co-sponsored a bill to criminalize certain behavior by peer-to-peer file sharing programs.

The bill is supposed to require a sort of informed consent by computer owners whenever a P2P file sharing program arrives. Here's what the bill wants to require:

• Ensures that P2P file sharing programs cannot be installed without providing clear notice and obtaining informed consent of the authorized computer user.

• Makes it unlawful to prevent the authorized user of a computer from:

1. Blocking the installation of a peer-to-peer file sharing program, and/or

2. Disabling or removing any peer-to-peer file sharing program.

Having taught several networking courses (not to mention having written my share of networking software), I'm not sure where they can draw the line. What constitutes 'clear notice,' and does that include such things as Windows and Apple file sharing? Do these OS vendors already comply with planned legislative requirements, or will they have to update their configuration software?

Does "Microsoft Genuine Advantage" violate the law if it won't let the computer owner block its communication with the Mother Ship in Redmond? If so, how does Microsoft check for people using the same license on two or more computers?

As a nit picker on technical terminology, I also doubt that prosecutors can distinguish between true P2P software and more pedestrian "client server" software that also shares files. I suspect that the term "P2P" will lose all meaning, and come to mean all file sharing.

Personally I'm thrilled that Senator Amy has introduced this legislation. I hope it generates some genuine discussion among lawmakers and the general public.

These are tricky problems. I don't believe that legitimate software vendors, including Apple and Microsoft, are as careful about consumer safety and privacy as perhaps they could be. This could all come up during this discussion as well.

I can't wait to see how this legislation will make a distinction between "files" created by a computer's owner, be they recipes or electronic payment requests, and "files" created by commercial software intended to verify a software license. If they write in such a distinction, I can also see a defendant using the loophole to evade prosecution.

Sadly, I suspect this fascinating legislative tour de force will disappear beneath the waves of "concerns" by corporations with deep pockets and boatloads of PAC money.

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