P2P Networks and the Verizon v. RIAA Case: Implications for Personal Privacy and Intellectual Property

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Peer-Reviewed Article

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In this paper, we examine some ethical implications of a controversial court decision in the United States involving Verizon (an Internet Service Provider or ISP) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA). In particular, we analyze the impacts this decision has for personal privacy and intellectual property. We begin with a brief description of the controversies and rulings in this case. This is followed by a look at some of the challenges that peer-to-peer (P2P) systems, used to share digital information, pose for our legal and moral systems. We then examine the concept of privacy to better understand how the privacy of Internet users participating in P2P file-sharing practices is threatened under certain interpretations of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) in the United States. In particular, we examine the implications of this act for a new form of "panoptic surveillance" that can be carried out by organizations such as the RIAA. We next consider the tension between privacy and property-right interests that emerges in the Verizon case, and we examine a model proposed by Jessica Litman for distributing information over the Internet in a way that respects both privacy and property rights. We conclude by arguing that in the Verizon case, we should presume in favor of privacy as the default position, and we defend the view that a presumption should be made in favor of sharing (rather than hoarding) digital information. We also conclude that in the Verizon case, a presumption in favor of property would have undesirable effects and would further legitimize the commodification of digital information - a recent trend that is reinforced by certain interpretations of the DMCA on the part of lawmakers and by aggressive tactics used by the RIAA.