Despite amendments designed to curb criticism, anti-piracy bills pending in several state legislatures still face opposition from Internet freedom groups and the Consumer Electronics Association, which describe the measures as overbroad and ambiguous.
The bills are modeled after anti-theft updates passed in other states over the last two years. Legislation enacted in Pennsylvania is considered the model.
Cable lobbyists, in concert with the Motion Picture Association of America, have promoted the bills to extend anti-theft provisions to products such as Internet service delivery and wireless communications, among other products.
The bills also address a serious flaw in current anti-piracy legislation, which fines thieves for each occurence, rather than on a per-device basis. That language has capped damages at about $40,000, which is not a financial deterrent to large-scale pirates.
Perhaps most important, the bills hope to protect future pay services delivered over the Internet. Sponsors don't want the wholesale piracy of content that's been witnessed in the music industry enabled by Internet file-sharing services such as Morpheus and Grokster.
Theft via the Internet will dampen demand for cable's video-on-demand offerings, sponsors have argued.
Apparently the bills escaped the notice of opponents until this year, when versions cropped up in a number of states.
Early in April, the CEA raised a red flag, along with Verizon Communications and groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which said they would fight the proposals.
The CEA accused the MPAA of using the state legislation to get around Congress and obtain rights it was denied under the federal Digital Millennium Copyright Act.
Opponents said they feared the state bills would criminalize the use of common hardware and software.
Members of the MPAA and cable's Broadband Internet Security Task Force met with opponents after the CEA pronouncement early last month. Proponents agreed to amend the bills in hopes of mollifying critics.
"The intent of the legislation is not to expose hardware and software developers to liability for legitimate products. We thought that was quite clear. [Piracy] requires criminal intent and alteration," said Geoff Beauchamp, attorney to the task force.
The changes emphasized that manufacturers are not liable unless the primary purpose of a piece of equipment is to steal signals.
Critics are not satisfied. Two weeks ago academics from Princeton and Harvard universities opposed language in the Massachusetts version they felt would prevent Internet users from using technology to mask their identities, adding that the bill could even be used to ban firewalls.
More CEA blasts
The CEA resumed its criticism last week. The bills could render a consumer's use of a digital video recorder criminal if their broadband provider happens to have an exclusive arrangement with another DVR vendor, the association said. The bills will have a chilling effect on electronic sales, the organization fears, as well as severely crimping consumer home-taping rights.
"Their concerns are totally unfounded," said Geoff Beauchamp, attorney for the Broadband Internet Security Task Force. "CEA [members] will be no more liable than Home Depot if it sold a screwdriver that was later used by a thief to steal a car."
The criminal intent requirements in the bill have been heightened, he added. "They can't credibly complain," he said.