March 20, 2019

.comment: The Digital Millennium Rape Act

What to Expect

  • July 23, 2001
  • By Dennis E. Powell
WASHINGTON -- Federal law enforcement officials today began rounding up men for alleged violation of the new Digital Millennium Rape Act.

The law, which went into effect June 30, bans "possession of any item or device that makes it possible to commit the crime of rape." It was approved last month by a narrow margin in both the House of Representatives and the Senate following intense negotiations during which a provision was added which excempts government employees, including senators and representatives, from the new law. The legislation was necessary to bring the U.S. into compliance with a treaty negotiated in Japan two years ago by the Clinton administration, but thusfar unsigned by any country. International pressure on the U.S. to sign the accord was intense, however, coming especially from the European Union and many non-European third-world nations. The treaty specifies actions that the United States must take, making no mention of other nations.

"This landmark legislation serves notice on all would-be rapists: If you've got the equipment, we'll lock you up," said the bill's sponsor, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-California), immediately after its passage.

Critics of the bill argued at the time that mere ability to commit a crime should not itself be a crime, but were overwhelmed by an intense public relations campaign mounted by proponents. Among the existing laws cited in defense of the bill were federal gun regulations and the Digital Millennium Copyright Act, which make possession of firearms and software, respectively, illegal.

"If you can do the crime, you will do the time," said Boxer. " This is a crime prevention measure -- by the time someone has actually committed an offense, it's too late."

Silly, Isn't It

The above is not real -- if you thought it was, get help at once. But it's a demonstration of the direction in which things are headed, and unless this trend is seen as a whole, there's not a chance of stopping it, if indeed a chance of stopping it still exists at all.

Monday's arrest of Dmitry Sklyarov for violation of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act has outraged many in the hacker community. Skylarov, who it is now reported also sold password-cracking software to the FBI, is accused of making it possible to circumvent certain technology owned by Adobe Systems Inc. Note that he is not accused of having employed this software to circumvent that technology but merely of having demonstrated that it can be done.

As readers of this column cannot have escaped noticing, there is no one louder in defense of copyright protections than I am. But there is a difference between the ability to violate copyright and actually doing so.

The community is enraged, but the rest of the world doesn't give much of a toot, one way or the other. Sound familiar?

That is how totalitarianism is achieved. You pick a fairly small, even fringe, community, and you use them to create the underpinnings for what could result in far broader controls. There's no broad outcry, because people figure it doesn't effect them, and they're too busy worrying about the truly important stuff, such as how the Yankees are doing.

You may think that what follows is some kind of right-wing rant from out in the fever swamps, but hear me out.

In the early 1930s, organized mobs were shooting each other to pieces. Something, it was agreed, needed to be done. Thus, a law was passed banning things like fully automatic weapons and sawed-off shotguns. No one shopped to think that shooting people was already illegal, so the chances were few that mobsters would say, "Oh, my! It's illegal to have this tommygun. I guess we'll have to stop bumping people off." Mob rubouts continued, though only really well organized, successful outfits could afford good weapons; making them illegal drove up the price. Everybody else had to use knives, piano wire, and bombs under the driver's seat.

In the 1960s, a president was shot and killed, apparently with a cheap Italian 6.5mm military rifle purchased through the mail. In his infinite wisdom Sen. Thomas Dodd (who later left the Senate under a cloud of scandal) decided that the problem here was the means whereby Lee Harvey Oswald had gotten the weapon. The nation, which has never paid all that much attention, said, "Fine, go ahead," and a law was passed which banned such sales. All this did was drive the price of firearms up. The murder rate -- and at some point we must consider that this was the problem supposedly being addressed -- went up, too.

The country never stopped to consider that the problem is the intent to commit a crime, and the carrying out of that intent, rather than the ability to do so. More important, nobody ever stopped to note that absolutely everyone is capable of committing crimes, and no amount of legislation will ever change that. If you have decided to kill someone, you will kill that person and there's no stopping you. Besides, killing someone is already illegal -- how much attention are you going to pay to lesser offenses?

To the extent that this fact was raised, the response was weak, but enough: Well, nobody really needs these weapons. And the laws are to protect us, right?

True. But there are a lot of things that nobody really needs, but that can be used for evil purposes. Computers, for instance.

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