Tech Bytes – Tid Bits in Tech News: Consumers in Captivity: Judge Patel’s Ruling Deserves Closer Scrutiny

Yesterday, many influential technology and telecommunication trade associations filed “friend of the court” briefs pursuant to the RIAA v. Napster copyright infringement case that is currently before the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Although the authors of the briefs are quick to distance themselves from Napster, they are strongly critical of Judge Marilyn Patel’s ruling that would have shut down the file-sharing Website.

Judge Patel’s ruling “could threaten the core Internet technologies that the public has come to rely upon, such as hyperlinking and online directories.”

According to the briefs, Judge Patel’s ruling “could threaten the core Internet technologies that the public has come to rely upon, such as hyperlinking and online directories.” The briefs also contend that the decision would have a chilling effect on innovation and the emergence of “peer-to-peer” file-sharing technology. They indicate that Patel’s ruling could be logically extended to make an Internet Service Provider (ISP), or possibly the company supplying the architecture for the file-sharing, culpable for copyright infringement.

Judge Patel based much of her decision on the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act. However, Section 512 of the Act exempts ISPs and other tech firms from prosecution for certain copyright violations. Napster’s original defense was that it was an ISP and protected under Section 512. This argument was dismissed by Patel in May, but will be reconsidered by the appeals court.

In a related event, last week Intel announced the formation of a working-group to foster standards and protocols for peer-to-peer computing. The move, described by tech journalist Paul McDougall as “Napster-style computing going corporate,” is an effort to utilize the desktop computers in a network more efficiently through interconnection. According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, most companies use only 25 percent of their computing and storage capacity.

File-sharing technology can either be implemented using a Napster-style central server, or a decentralized direct-method model that connects desktops over an IP network. The later model is similar to Gnutella, which connects selected-portions of desktop computers through a Web site. This business model could radically reduce costs as a result of more efficient use of computing equipment and as partners in different businesses have access to selected portions of their partners’ networks.

It is worthy to note that Intel is a member of the Digital Media Association, which submitted one of the briefs. Given their interest in peer-to-peer technology, it is easy to understand why Judge Patel’s ruling would be disconcerting to the chip manufacturer.

The digital age has created fascinating new questions. While attempting to answer them, it is essential that legislators and the courts realize that we are only at the beginning of what has come to be known as the information age. Policymakers should refrain from technology-specific solutions that hinder innovation and ultimately harm consumers.