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Security Advocates Attack Bill

By Naveen Sunkavally


The movie industry’s state-to-state push for a bill to criminalize various types of unauthorized access to communication services encountered stiff opposition in Massachusetts. Network security advocates, many from MIT, lambasted the bill for its exceedingly broad language and special interests bias at a public hearing Wednesday.

House Bill No. 2743, which is sponsored by State Representative A. Stephen Tobin, D-Quincy, and is supported by the Motion Picture Association of America, was the subject of animated discussion before the Criminal Justice Committee.

“Internet law in the United States is already a complete mess. This legislation would just make things worse,” said John G. Palfrey, executive director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “Make no mistake: this is special interest legislation, plain and simple,” he said.

Concealment clause draws ire

MPAA Vice President for Legislative Affairs Amy Isbell said the intent of the bill is to “prevent theft. We want to update that for the digital age.”

The bill is only “triggered if an individual knowingly perpetrates a crime,” she said. Versions of the bill have already been been passed in Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Wyoming.

The most heated discussion over the bill involved a clause that would forbid the use or creation of a device that would conceal the existence, place of origin, or destination of any telecommunication from any telecommunications service provider.

A “telecommunications service” is defined as any service provided for a charge including those “provided by any radio, telephone, fiber optic, cable television, satellite, microwave, data transmission, wireless or Internet-based distribution system, network, facility or technology.”

Security and privacy advocates said the clause would effectively make their job impossible. Standard security and privacy-protection mechanisms that conceal the origin or destination of their communications include anonymous relays, virtual private networks (VPNs), and network address translation (NAT) routers.

“I think it’s critical to tell users how they can keep their own personal information private .... The goal is to allow users to protect their own privacy,” said Roger Dingledine ’00, a private security researcher.

As an example, he said that users should be able to conceal their origins in order to prevent advertising agencies such as DoubleClick from maintaining profiles on them, which then make them potential targets of telemarketers.

“This bill contains no exemption for research or teaching,” said David Martin, an assistant professor of computer science at UMass Lowell who said that much of his research and classroom material would be classified as illegal under the wording of the bill.

Reps question clause as well

The clause also drew the attention of state representative Reed Hillman, R-Sturbridge, a member of the Criminal Justice Committee, who questioned Isbell if a router he uses at home to connect four computers to an Internet broadband connection would constitute a violation of the law.

Isbell said that he would not be committing a violation because the bill is primarily concerned with the intent of the action. She also said that the MPAA was very open to amendments and that the concealment clause is “not of particular concern to us” because it is a layover from older legislation modeled around the interests of cell phone companies who want to prevent the usage of dummy phones.

State representative David P. Linsky asked Isbell for instances of crimes that have occurred in Massachusetts which could not be equally handled under the general larceny statute. Isbell said she would check to see if there were any such instances.

Fate of bill unclear

Several people also questioned another clause, which said that “you can’t receive a communications service without the permission of the communications service provider,” said David Turner, of the Free Software Foundation. He said that the bill would compromise software packages provided under the GNU General Public License, and that “people should be allowed to build systems.”

As the hearing wore on, security advocate after advocate testified before the committee about the ambiguity of the bill. About halfway into the hearing, one proponent of the bill was overheard saying to another, “[The bill’s] dead here.”

Isbell left the hearing early, and an MPAA representative could not subsequently be reached for comment.

The bill remains before the committee for consideration.