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Controversy of the Year: War on Downloading

This is the year things got personal. The Recording IndustryAssociation of America made good on its threat to sue individualfile traders, not just the software companies that aid and abetthem. At first, the RIAA targeted college students like JesseJordan of Troy, New York, who was fined $12,000 for providing acampus network search engine on his website. By the end of theyear, the RIAA had filed hundreds of suits. But while the mediarushed to find defendants like 12-year-old Manhattan honors studentBrianna LaHara, few took note of Sherman Austin.

Likethe downloaders, Austin was sanctioned simply for sharing information.But in early 2002, the government decided that Austin, who had justturned 18, was a terrorist. His website — aclearinghouse of information on activism, from anti-globalizationprotests to police brutality — provided free server space for otherpolitical websites. One of those sites contained something called theReclaim Guide, which provided information on the making of explosivessuch as pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails. One afternoon in January2002, heavily armed FBI and Secret Service agents raided Austin’sSherman Oaks, California, home, trashing it and leaving with computers,books, political literature, and protest signs.

Austin wasarrested just over a week later at a protest in New York City. He washeld without bail for 13 days in various federal maximum-securityfacilities and in the summer of 2003 pleaded guilty to using theInternet to distribute information for use in committing a terroristact. In August, Austin was sentenced to one year in jail (and threeyears’ probation, during which he can’t use a computer or a cell phonewithout the permission of his probation officer); the presiding judgemade it clear that he was prepared to lock Austin up until he was 40.

What does Sherman Austin have in common with Brianna LaHara?They both provided access to information deemed proprietary bycorporations (in LaHara’s case) or dangerous to the state (inAustin’s). Their cases underscore that this is the year it became clearthat the privacy rights of average Americans were steadily eroding.Whatever you think about radical politics or file trading, the sametechnology that lets us share music with millions or mobilize thosemillions to protest also has freed data-mining corporations and theFBIto monitor our daily lives.

Austin was prosecuted under an obscure 1997 antiterroristlaw, given new life by the USA Patriot Act — legislation rammedthrough Congress after 9/11 that has made it easier for the governmentto spy on its own citizens, authorizing increased wiretapping powersand secret searches. Without the Patriot Act, it’s unlikely thatauthorities would have invaded the home of an 18-year-oldAfrican-American anarchist because of content on his website(especially when the person behind the site Austin hosted, a white kidfrom wealthy Orange County, was never charged). If you really want tolearn how to build a pipe bomb, several white-supremacist sites are aWeb search away.

The changing nature of online anonymity made it easier forthe music industry to amp up its war on file sharers. In 1998, Congresspassed the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, requiring Internet serviceproviders to reveal the identity of anyone storing copyrighted materialon company systems. In 2002, the RIAA sued telecommunications giantVerizon, demanding that the company reveal the identities of DSLcustomers. “When material isn’t on our network, we’re just the conduitthat people use to communicate,” says Sarah Deutsch, a lawyer forVerizon. “Whatever is going on on your hard drive, Verizon doesn’t knowabout it. We’re not allowed to peer into your computer. But with theadvent of peer-to-peer file sharing, the recording industry has becomeincreasingly unhappy with the DMCA and has been looking for litigationstrategies to undo it.” A judge found in the RIAA’s favor, granting theindustry group access to thousands of names. The RIAA now can obtainthis information simply by claiming that you possess illicit material.Perhaps the most absurd target in this year’s round of lawsuits was aretired Massachusetts teacher who was served papers for using Kazaa todownload Trick Daddy’s “I’m a Thug,” even though her Mac can’t use theprogram. Still, she had to retain a lawyer to clear her name. (“Wedecided to give her the benefit of the doubt,” an industry spokeswomansaid afterward.)

But the RIAA wants to go even further, and it’s beingsupported by more than a few friends in Congress. This year was markedby a number of radical proposals, one by California congressman HowardBerman that would make file sharing a felony. (There’s already aburgeoning industry for “copyright bounty hunters.”) As goes the RIAA,so goes the world. Universities are caught between obeying privacy lawsand yielding to pressure to reveal the names of alleged copyrightlawbreakers. Librarians can be forced to turn over to the FBI a list ofbooks borrowed by any patron.

In August, two weeks before Sherman Austin began hissentence, Attorney General John Ashcroft embarked on a cross-countrytour to rally support for the Patriot Act. Ashcroft was met byprotesters who covered the political spectrum, from Green Partyactivists to NRA loyalists. On August 29, ex?Rage Against the Machinesinger Zack de la Rocha hosted a benefit concert for Austin in SanDiego. Austin addressed the crowd, sounding both shaky and resilient:”The threat to national security is us taking control of our ownlives,” he said. Austin began serving his sentence at the CentralDetention Center in San Bernardino five days later, two days beforeAshcroft’s tour hit Florida. “We have constructed America’s defenseupon a foundation of prevention,” Ashcroft told an audience at a TampaBay hotel, “nurtured by cooperation, built on coordination, and rootedin the constitutional liberties of this free nation.”

A Few days later, Austin was moved to solitary confinement to protect him from white supremacists.