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Whoa! Hold on to that terminator, Sen. Hatch

SHARE Whoa! Hold on to that terminator, Sen. Hatch

There was something primal and appealing about the way Orrin Hatch, Utah's senior senator, told the Senate Judiciary Committee last week that he would like to blow up computers.

Well, OK, he didn't exactly put it that way. What he said was that he would like to use modern technology to destroy the computers of people who illegally download copyrighted movies and music, such as the stuff, one supposes, Hatch himself has written in recent years. Hatch would give people three popup warnings on their screens. Then, if they persisted, he'd turn their hard drives to dust.

It's an idea brimming with sweet revenge. One false mouse click and your nemesis is off the 'Net, searching through the attic for his computer warranty.

Think of all the applications this kind of technology could have. Don't like those annoying dinner-hour phone calls from solicitors? Hit a button on your phone and send their call centers back to the mid 20th century. Or perhaps, like me, you have spent this day wading through 83 e-mail messages that range from worthless to patently offensive. Wouldn't it be nice, just once, to get back at these people, whoever they are?

Alas, reality is seldom so simple and satisfying. The problem with Hatch's idea is that it could have a devastating effect on the economy. Like it or not, we are all connected and intertwined, and many of us are doing much more than meets the eye.

It's no secret that, for a lot of people, the time they spend on a computer also happens to be the time they spend at work. It's also no secret that many of them, in defiance of company memos, spend time at work downloading things that have no relation to the company's bottom line. This includes, by the way, things downloaded through questionable file-sharing programs such as KaZaa, which has an estimated customer base in the United States of tens of millions. Start blowing up computers in the name of copyright protection and you could end up grinding commerce to a halt and sending the economy back to the 1930s.

You also would throw local, state and federal governments into chaos. As Hatch's committee heard this week, the House Government Reform Committee recently found thousands of government computers using file-sharing programs, including 155 at Los Alamos National Laboratory, 138 at NASA and 236 at Naval Warfare Systems Command.

Are we really such a nation of scofflaws? Do we collectively treat intellectual property rights with about as much respect as we treat Halloween candy?

Well, not exactly. The truth, as always, is a little more complicated than that. In the modern, click-it-and-get-it culture, moral and ethical lines are becoming more blurry by the minute.

For the first few years of personal computing, most of us could easily grasp why it was wrong to copy songs off the Internet, just as we could see why it's wrong to use a copy machine to run off an entire book to avoid paying for it. What's more, the official world seemed to be in total agreement on this. The government pursued, and ultimately shut down, Napster. And then it tried to go after other, similar Web sites and programs as they slithered into the ether and slunk into the shadows of far-off lands.

But then, suddenly, the rules seemed to change. Apple Computer Inc. started an ad campaign urging everyone to "Rip. Mix. Burn," a reference to how one could copy music using the company's new products. While that was happening, MP3 players started showing up in stores everywhere, and computers started coming with CD burners as standard equipment.

Then suddenly, last April, Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced a new iTunes Music Store, which makes hundreds of thousands of songs available from five major recording labels. Users pay 99 cents a song, but they can make virtually unlimited copies of anything they download.

And the whole idea has the blessing of the music industry, including big name artists who used to be archenemies of file sharing.

What was wrong is now right, at least sort of, apparently, maybe.

The real danger with file sharing, as Hatch and his committee are aware, is that the programs make your own computer vulnerable to hackers. If you're at home, your personal files could be at risk. If you're on a Naval Warfare computer, the nation's security could be at risk. It's this same vulnerability that would make it possible for someone to destroy your computer.

And so, of course, something must be done. It's just that no one seems to know what.

A few years ago, the Internet was like the Wild West. Today it seems more like a combination of a bazaar and a carnival midway — in the middle of the Wild West. Start blowing up computers, and you could have a Wild West carnival bazaar in the Middle East. Who wants that?

Jay Evensen is editorial page editor of the Deseret Morning News. E-mail: even@desnews.com