P2P warning bill passes House committee, will go to the floor

Perhaps the most oft-used defense by defendants charged with the proliferation of unauthorized files -- including some which actually belonged to them or were entrusted to their care -- by way of P2P file-sharing programs has been, "I didn't know." That was the defense invoked by US government employees, and even their direct reports, when classified documents turned up on LimeWire two years ago.

If P2P technology truly can and should be used for legitimate purposes, as many of its engineers and practitioners believe, then the very least it can do for users is inform them of what and where files will be shared. That's the aim of a House bill re-introduced last March by Congresswoman Mary Bono Mack (R - Calif.), the widow of entertainer and Congressman Sonny Bono. After over a year's deliberation (taking the bill's predecessors into account), Rep. Bono's bill -- the Informed P2P User Act -- passed the House Energy and Commerce Committee yesterday, and is on its way to a full House floor debate.

Up to now, the debate among congresspeople has been whether the bill will "do enough" -- specifically, whether the real means to thwarting P2P's ability to share unauthorized and even confidential files involves prohibiting or limiting the spread of the technology itself. But the Bono bill is a compromise that would hold P2P engineers to their word when they say they can ensure their software is used for legitimate purposes: In simple language, it states that P2P programs must inform users during setup about which files they can possibly share with other users in the network, and must repeat that message during product activation -- giving users the opportunity to cancel if they realize they're exposing documents to danger.

"Imagine all your tax returns, medical records, family photos, your resume, professional records, online bill information, and anything else available to complete strangers," Rep. Bono posited in a May 5 editorial for The Hill. "Does this frighten you? It should."

The bill would also make it illegal for any software to install P2P components on a user's computer without also giving her the obvious means to uninstall it. This may not only be to protect the user's interests, but also to forestall opportunities for prospective defendants to argue in court that they didn't even know their file-sharing software was there.

Rep. Bono perhaps inadvertently painted herself as an enemy of the file-sharing community when a member of her staff casually told a member of the press -- who passed it on to the Associated Press -- that becoming the head of the RIAA would be her "ideal job." Bono later denied she ever had that sentiment; but in an environment where black and white are the only two colors of paint available, the damage was already done. The office worker's comments came after Rep. Bono's formation in 2003 of a congressional caucus representing copyright holders -- a caucus where she would not only be the representative but also, as the inheritor of her late husband's music, one of the represented.

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