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Freedom of Speech at Risk in Cyberspace
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The Open Door to Piracy. The truth about why some access providers have become a part of the problem of Internet Piracy By Jan Thorpe.

n the latest chapter in the well-known war against illegal software piracy, in October 1995, U.S. Marshals, accompanied by representatives of the Business Software Alliance (BSA), raided the home of a bulletin board operator in Pasadena, California, following an investigation that revealed hundreds of illegal software programs on the board.

The bulletin board system (BBS), known as “Depeches Violation” included copyrighted software programs published by Autodesk, Lotus, Microsoft, Novell and the Word Perfect Applications Group. Depeches Violation provided pirated software in one of two ways. Users would contact the board and identify software they wished to obtain and then offer the board other software “in exchange.” The system operator (sysop) would assess the value of the uploading software and inform the browser what he could download. Alternatively, if the browser had nothing to upload, Depeches Violation would sell the pirated software.

Meanwhile, the system operator would also regularly access other illegal bulletin boards. Of course, this type of conduct is totally reprehensible, yet you see it constantly in the news and hear about it frequently on the Net. It is common knowledge that many bulletin boards carry commercial software which has been uploaded so it can be “shared” or taken freely by others. And, while Internet access grows, the quantity of software piracy also grows larger and larger.

It was that last parallel — growth of the Internet versus the growth of software piracy — that caught the interest of Freedom. Providing access to the Internet is a big business, and one which continues to grow. One major service provider saw its revenues quintuple last year. According to the Internet Society, an estimated 96,000 people newly gain access to the Internet every day. In 1995, revenues lost through software piracy tripled, reaching $15.2 billion.

Many of the larger services provide services in addition to straight Internet access, but the rest — which, according to Vinton Cerf, the “father of the Internet” encompasses roughly 2/3 of Internet users “ go with the smaller, quirkier outfits. Most of them have nothing to offer other than access, sometimes technical assistance, and maintenance.

Or do they? Could there be more to this picture?

It was worth a trip to the Net to find out.


Through logging on to the Internet via Netcom, poking around and talking to people familiar with the “dark side” of the Net, noteworthy items were soon discovered in the “alt.” (alternative) section of Usenet. “Usenet” is an acronym for User Network, a part of the Internet which includes various on-line discussion groups and bulletin boards.

Of course, there was sex and politics and obscenity. You see those in life, so seeing them on the Net is no surprise.

But then there was “Alt.2600.”

A sample of what was found tells the story:

  • How to rip off a change machine.

  • How to make local and long-distance calls without paying.

  • How to see pay TV in a hotel without being charged for it.

There were also such entries as:

"Maybe one day software will be sold at a fare [sic] price. Maybe one day upgrades won’t come out every 3 months with features that should have been in the original. ... It’s just a dream of mine but it could happen. That is, if we all do our duty to God and pirate every damn piece of software we can get our hands on.”

Then there was this electronic discussion: "Perhaps we should all just pirate games and then send the companies the money that we believe the games are worth.”

"Naaaaa, I prefer just keeping the games and the money. You know money is the root of all evil. I’m doing them a moral service by protecting the greedy bastards from EVIL. We’re all on a holy quest here. Yeah, that’s it — a holy quest to spare Bill Gates and the rest of the a-holes who charge outlandist [sic] prices for watered-down over-hyped software! We should be proud! We’re saving souls here!”

And more:

"I have a collection of approximately 2,000 viruses and various other goodies. E-mail me if interested.”

One person’s response: “Have any “bomb” type viruses (good for some local BBS [Bulletin Board System]s)?”

"You can pseudo-red box [set up a phone so as to make free long-distance calls] using just two side-by-side pay phones. If one of them is loud enough, you can hold the mouthpiece of it to the earpiece of another one (which you plug quarters into)...”

"About a month ago I was in Lansing, MI for a school conference. We stayed at a good hotel (Holliday [sic] Inn, don’t know which one). To our surprise, the movies were turned off. ... The trick [to seeing free movies] was ...”

Alt.2600 also contained information about how to easily break into computer passwords. How to break into secure Internet accounts. And how to acquire more software for Alt.2600.

Of course, visitors to this newsgroup and others like it gain access largely through commercial Internet access providers. And, while one couldn’t expect these outfits to check everything which passes through their systems, what about when they are alerted to a problem? What if they know infringement or piracy is happening on their system?

Apparently, very few are concerned. Worse, even more are happy to exploit the situation. “Netcom [an access provider] ain’t makin’ move one to censor anybody” said one copyright thief on the Net. “Me and them are like this” he added, stating that he had his fingers crossed.

"The Internet offers enormous opportunity for the Aryan resistance to disseminate our message” wrote a member of a notorious neo-Nazi group. “It is the only relatively uncensored mass medium which we have available. ... NOW is the time to grasp the WEAPON which is the INTERNET and wield it skillfully and wisely.”

An anonymous poster, “Judas” after broadcasting viruses to subscribers on two Internet newsgroups, causing untold damage to honest users, retained his account with his access provider, the Internet Access Co., of Bedford, Massachusetts. A spokesman for the company stated that the poster “really hasn’t, in my mind, done anything malicious.”

And the justifications offered by those committing criminal acts range from the arrogant to the flippant: “I can’t honestly say I care about the exaggerated suffering of big software companies. Corporate suffering figures very low on my list of priority of pain suffered in the universe.”

"If it was as easy to steal cars as it is to pirate software, we’d all be car thieves. Besides, it doesn’t hurt a company like Microsoft to have a few of its over-priced software packages copied.”

Internet pioneer Alfonso Cardenas, professor of computer science at the University of California Los Angeles and author of several books on computers, praised the efforts of University Network access providers who continue to assure good citizenship by their users, adding, “Several million of us users expect this. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of a number of new access providers. Many of the worst offenders are now some irresponsible BBSes, often a person with a small PC operating out of a room or garage.”

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