Can Draconian Internet copyright laws be used to make criminals of people who criticize corporate products or government behavior? In the Sklyarov case -- he's in jail, charged with "trafficking" in software -- criminal felony liability has been imposed by the government at the complaint of a corporation for behavior that may not even qualify technically as copyright infringement, an ugly escalation of growing conflicts involving corporatism, free speech, intellectual property and the movement of ideas online. Does anybody believe Ralph Nader or a New York Times reporter would be in jail if he or she did what Sklyarov did? (Meanwhile, Adobe, in a classic demo of corporate morality, is running for its life.)
The arrest highlights the way copyright law and intellectual property issues have been highjacked by software and entertainment companies and their lobbyists, who joined forces to pass the Digital Millenium Copyright Act, a little-noticed or debated 1996 law that turns out to be a serious threat to free speech online or off. Sklyarov, a 26-year-old graduate student from Moscow, is one of the first people to face criminal prosecution -- including jail -- under the DMCA. His alleged crime? He is accused of "trafficking" in software designed to circumvent the security features of an Adobe e-book program used by Amazon, Barnes & Noble and other sellers of electronic books.
The arrest raises questions about the right of individuals -- hackers, reporters, programmers, kids in their rooms -- to raise public policy issues relating to software, encryption or security -- without being arrested and jailed, an act more reminiscent of Stalinist Russia than of a country that once placed considerable premium on free speech. If the Sklyarov case stands, then discussion of security, copyright, intellectual property and other issues online will be severely curtailed. This is serious stuff.
In addition, there is a significant body of Constitutional law that gives special protection to journalists and people acting in that role -- like Sklyarov -- from powerful interests like governments and corporations that allows them to raise public policy issues which, over the years, have ranged from national security to government corruption to music and research to software and issues relating to its security. The Constitution always tilted in favor of protecting individuals who challenge authority, under the theory that concentrated power poses a greater threat to freedom than the behavior of individuals.
To understand how information conglomerates have, along with Congress, corrupted Constitutional law, you have to draw analogies to previous cases in which individuals acted as checks and balances on powerful institutions.
Consider the celebrated Pentagon Papers during the Nixon administration in 1971. Journalists, including some working for The New York Times, CBS News and The Washington Post, obtained and disclosed secret Pentagon documents dealing with the decision-making that led to the Vietnam War, then and now bitterly controversial.
The circumstances were very different. The government invoked national security, not copyright in an effort to keep proprietary information secret. The government and the President reacted furiously when they learned that the media intended to publish these documents, citing law and national security. Reporters couldn't be allowed to decide which classified documents would be published, argued the government. These documents belonged to government agencies and could only be released by them. In a different context, Adobe and the government are making the very same argument against Sklyarov.
The Federal government threatened criminal action against the reporters and their news organizations, claiming it was illegal to disclose documents relating to national security. But the U.S. Supreme Court, in a unanimous ruling, found that it was unconstitutional to exercise that kind of "prior restraint" on a journalist or news organization seeking to fulfill its constitutional duties to monitor government actions. The court ruled that even though national security concerns were legitimate, the greater public interest lay in the ability of citizens to understand the decisions that led to a prolonged military conflict. The court ruled for an open, rather than a closed, debate on Vietnam.
In its ruling, the Court affirmed long-standing legal interpretations which protected people acting as citizens or journalists -- remember, there are no established qualifications; anyone can function as a journalist -- from censorship, restraint or punishment while they were acting in the public interest, defined as scrutinizing and checking power and authority. Today, corporatism is as powerful as most governments, and as urgently in need of monitoring.
Apart from the scale of the bedrock issue -- a war versus encryption -- there is little legal difference between the reporters seeking to disclose what was in the Pentagon Papers and Sklyarov, who was acting as a reporter just as much as New York Times employees. If anything, the Pentagon papers were airing much more sensitive material -- top-secret classified documents from U.S. defense agencies.
If a New York Times or Washington Post reporter challenged the effectiveness of a government official or agency, he or she would be showered with awards. Reporters published "leaked" or confidential material all the time, in regards to the safety practices of companies as well as the workings of government. Does any rational person think a New York Times reporter would ever be arrested or thrown in jail for disclosing that a software company's supposedly securely encrypted software had flaws? Sklyarov is entitled to the same standing, and the same protection. In a sense, hackers are the reporters and commentators of cyberspace, in some contexts entitled to similiar protections.
If there's a bright spot to the arrest, it's the growing discomfort of Adobe, which spent most of yesterday back-pedaling, trying to distance itself from the arrest. The image of this giant corporation, which claims to be the second biggest PC software company in the United States, against a 26-year-old gadfly wasn't pretty, and may deter other companies from calling in the feds. This promises to be a PR debacle for Adobe, and the company richly deserves it. Many software critics compare Sklyarov to corporate critics like Ralph Nader, who gathered private information on the behavior and safety records of corporations and there products, but are rarely, if ever, thrown in jail for it. Yesterday, Adobe panicked, and in an unexpected turnaround, called for Sklyarov's release -- almost one month to the day that the company filed a complaint about him with the F.B.I. That leaves the feds holding the bag, trying to explain this outrageous arrest.
People protesting Sklyarov's arrest are correct when they warn that critics of companies can now go to jail for proving that so-called secure software isn't necessarily secure. Or for obtaining and publishing other "copyrighted" material, now under the DMCA, and owned by wealthy, politically-connected corporations like Adobe or Microsoft.
Companies like Sony, Disney, AOL Time-Warner, Microsoft and Adobe are increasingly powerful, and spend billions lobbying Washington politicians to enact laws like the DMCA, an almost total creation of the music industry.
But people like Sklyarov are clearly acting in the public interest when they monitor the ethics, performance and conduct of companies like Adobe, just as the Pentagon Paper reporters were disclosing documents that launched the Vietnam War. If Adobe's encryption software works, what does the company have to fear from a 26-year-old Russian hacker?
Sklyarov was guilty of offering a public presentation about software designed to prevent the piracy of e-books, meanwhile, publishing corporations have been lining up behind the record and movie companies to try to control intellectual property online -- at any cost.
Sklyarov wasn't stealing money, or behaving in any overtly criminal way. The government and Adobe both have civil legal remedies they could have pursued. And whatever Sklyarov's motives or intentions, he was acting in the most traditional and highest standards of the press and free speech in questioning the widely-used products of a powerful corporation. Encryption and e-publishing is a bona fide public policy issue with significant implications for business and the public.
Who else but a hacker is in a position to monitor companies like Adobe and the products they create, products that are at the center of a number of crucial public policy issues? To embroil this person in criminal prosecution is an unthinking and chilling assault on the notion -- and long-held practice -- that people in the United States can speak out, however obnoxiously, against powerful institutions.