Jewish World Review June 24, 2003 / 24 Sivan, 5763

Leonard Pitts, Jr.

Leonard Pitts, Jr.
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Consumer Reports

Three strikes and your (computer) is out? | Orrin Hatch wants to blow up your computer.

Well, OK, he didn't say ''blow up'' exactly. The actual verb was ''destroy.'' So I guess he'd be just as happy to see it melted into a steaming plastic heap or dropped from the top of a very tall building. The main point is that your computer ceases to exist.

And yeah, somebody obviously got into his ear right after he said it and whispered, ''Senator, you really can't go around destroying people's computers.'' So that a day later he backtracked, kinda sorta, claiming that when he said destroy computers, he didn't really mean destroy computers. But you just know that deep down in his heart of hearts, the Republican from Utah wants to run over your computer with a dump truck.

For which he has my sympathy, if not my vote.

Yeah, I know. Context. You want context. Fine, I got your context right here.

Hatch made his comments last week during a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee looking into Internet piracy of movies and music. Randy Saaf of MediaDefender, an L.A. company whose technology is used to fight Internet theft, was testifying.

''No one is interested in destroying anyone's computer,'' he said at one point.

To which Hatch replied, ''I'm interested.'' He suggested a system under which people who illegally download copyrighted material would receive two warnings. On the third strike, their computer would be trashed, presumably by some virus that eats the hard drive.

''If we can find some way to do this without destroying their machines, we'd be interested in hearing about that,'' Hatch said. "If that's the only way, then I'm all for destroying their machines.''

Wreck a few hundred thousand computers, he said, and maybe people would think twice about their actions. Does one really want to risk a $2,500 machine to avoid paying $19.95 for a DVD of Spider-Man?

Of course, you can't just go around nuking people's computers. There are laws against that. And Hatch is hardly a disinterested observer here. To the contrary, the senator is a moderately successful songwriter; he has a tune on a recent Gladys Knight CD, in fact.

Still, one does not have to have money at stake to be appalled by the $7.2 billion annual loss sustained by the music and movie industries as a result of the traffic in purloined product. Nor does one have to receive a check from those industries to be disgusted by the sense of smug entitlement and smarmy self-justification with which so many computer shoplifters -- for that's what they are -- go about downloading entertainment they haven't paid for.

It's one thing -- both legally and morally -- to make a copy of a favorite CD for private use. It's quite another to post it on the Internet for the use of a million of your closest friends.

But this has become quite the common occurrence. The sense seems to be that it's a victimless crime or, to the degree there is a victim, it's only the filthy-rich greed heads who run the film and music industries. So why not enjoy free movies and music?

The problem with that logic is neon. You have to be awfully young, awfully naive or awfully both, to believe in free anything. Or to think creative industries sustaining multibillion-dollar losses will not balance the books by taking fewer risks on edgy or unproven fare.

So there is a victim here. It's the consumer. You and me.

It's also the society itself. How morally blinkered are we when it becomes necessary to defend the premise that theft is wrong?

But we have indeed reached that point. Just a few weeks ago, a young woman, spotting the MP3 player clipped to my hip, asked if I downloaded music. When I told her that every song in the player came from a CD I owned, she made a face. ''Oh,'' she said, "you must have a moral objection.''

It was the tone you'd take with a slow child.

So right now I'm thinking, OK, we can't destroy everybody's computers. Fine. Can we at least destroy hers?

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