Sound far-fetched? Guess again. Gobbles Security -- a group of hackers that searches the Web for software vulnerabilities -- recently posted a statement saying that it had been hired by the Recording Industry Association of America (the brownshirt squadron of the major labels) to create a virus/worm hybrid that would help root out downloading pirates. Each time someone grabs an MP3 off an illegal site, the virus zooms into the downloader's computer files, compiles a list of all songs therein, and reports that list back to the RIAA, which can then initiate criminal proceedings.
Thankfully, the Gobbles post is a hoax, according to an RIAA spokesperson. (Ha ha, those hackers are such kooks. I mean "kooks" in the nicest way, of course; please don't destroy our computers.) But before you go back to ripping copies of "The Humpty Dance," you may want to consider just how close to reality the scenario is. "Technically, the whole thing is feasible," says Manny Ponce, a local musician and network administrator. "There's already viruses that would delete all the files in a user's directory, and it wouldn't be hard to rewrite it to do [what Gobbles suggested]." The major labels have already admitted to unleashing thousands of dummy MP3s, which usually contain five seconds of a song followed by a bitchy admonition to "stop stealing our music."
Of course, such "hack back" shenanigans are currently illegal, which may help explain the RIAA's furious lobbying on Capitol Hill. After Congress passed the Patriot Act in October 2001, the RIAA tried to get the anti-cyberterrorist bill rewritten so its goons could poke around people's computers any time they wanted -- in the name of looking for pirated songs, of course. Naturally, if while the RIAA was invading your privacy it happened to destroy your equipment, the group couldn't be held responsible. When public outcry forced the RIAA to withdraw its suggestions, the organization simply tried a different tack: suing to block access to Listen4ever.com (a Chinese music-download site), which would've set a dangerous precedent concerning who controls what we can browse.
From the start of the MP3 revolution, the music industry has tried to fix the "problem" with litigation and scare tactics, instead of coming up with a working solution. The RIAA's latest coup occurred last week, when a Washington, D.C., judge told Verizon Internet Services that it had to hand over the name of a subscriber who had used KaZaA to share (gulp!) 666 music files. "This is a continuation of the RIAA's war against the consumer," says Lee Tien, senior staff attorney for S.F.'s Electronic Frontier Foundation, which serves as a watchdog for Internet free speech issues. "They've successfully extended their claws further to get providers to rat out their users."
"What's amazing is that this cuts the legal system out of the process," says Eliot Van Buskirk, senior editor at CNET/ZDNet. The RIAA can now serve an ISP with an "information subpoena" requesting a subscriber's name. Rather than worry about being sued by the record industry, the ISP will most likely deny the user service, without ever letting the subscriber defend himself. Not only is this practice ethically wrong, but, as Van Buskirk points out, it's also prone to producing false positives -- just ask the man who nearly got tossed from his ISP for uploading his son's book report on Harry Potter.
The worst thing about the RIAA's attitude is its shortsightedness. As Van Buskirk explains, more people have used peer-to-peer technology than voted for Bush and Gore combined in the last presidential election. Like it or not, P2P services are here to say. "What this decision does is push [file-sharing] people further underground," Van Buskirk says. "Short of a police state, you won't be able to stop it." (Let's not give the RIAA any ideas.)
If you'd like more information, go to www.boycott-riaa.com.