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Obama Supports Online Privacy, Except When Big Donors Don't

The Obama administration is on the Internet privacy bandwagon. At least, that's how it has tried to position itself. But at the same time, Obama and his crew have shown how quickly they'll reverse direction on the political-funding winds, when content companies want wiretapping to enforce copyright and trademark infringement .

On one hand, the Obama administration put its weight behind a consumer privacy bill of rights and support for an online "do not track" mechanism, so people can potentially opt out of online behavioral marketing. (Although, depending on how it's implemented, a do-notâ€"track requirement could effectively leave advertisers and marketers free to do whatever they want.)

But the interest in strengthening charges for alleged copyright and trademark infringement and adding wiretapping into enforcement shows that principles of privacy depend on who's interested in getting information. As an administration white paper explains, the Obama administration wants to expand current wiretapping laws to include criminal copyright and criminal trademark offenses. Sound reasonable? Check this definition of criminal copyright infringement:

1) In general. -- Any person who willfully infringes a copyright shall be punished as provided under section 2319 of title 18, if the infringement was committed --
    (A) for purposes of commercial advantage or private financial gain;
    (B) by the reproduction or distribution, including by electronic means, during any 180-day period, of 1 or more copies or phonorecords of 1 or more copyrighted works, which have a total retail value of more than $1,000; or
    (C) by the distribution of a work being prepared for commercial distribution, by making it available on a computer network accessible to members of the public, if such person knew or should have known that the work was intended for commercial distribution.
The government -- or organizations like the RIAA, which arguably has been fanatical and unreasonable in its pursuit of alleged copyright infringers -- could ask for wiretaps if someone watches a movie or listens to music without paying, because there is technically a private financial gain, or if the person has it on a peer-to-peer network, whether or not it's actually distributed. Recently, the federal government shut down websites of alleged copyright infringers without warning and without having to litigate to do so.

This is not sitting well with some large companies in the high tech industry, as Nate Anderson at Ars Technica reported:

A DC trade group representing companies like AMD, Facebook, Oracle, Yahoo, Google, and Microsoft today objected loudly to the plan, saying that legitimate concerns about counterfeiting have been "hijacked to create draconian proposals to alleviate the content industry of the burden of protecting its own interest using its own extensive resources."
That group, the Computer & Communications Industry Association, put it this way:
The government has shown how its zeal leads to carelessness in its unprecedented efforts to widely seize domain names for IP enforcement, which ICE undertook this year. Sites were wrongfully shut down based on allegations the user was engaged in criminal conduct deemed lawful by their courts. We are concerned the same low threshold will be used in making decisions to spy on U.S. citizens.

Some in Congress and the White House have apparently decided that no price is too high to pay to kowtow to Big Content's every desire, including curtailing civil liberties by expanding wiretapping of electronic communications. Even the controversial USA PATRIOT Act exists because of extraordinary national security circumstances involving an attack on our country. Does Hollywood deserve its own PATRIOT Act?

Why would an organization of such large companies object? Guess who's going to be ordered to do the online wiretapping? And why would the administration be so ... cooperative? Maybe because, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics, the television, movie, and music industry was the ninth largest industry donor to the Obama 2008 president campaign. Computers and Internet were at 20.

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Image: Flickr user A. Strakey, CC 2.0.