Swap 'Til You Drop

Millions of Americans are using the Internet to swap things in a way that may well be illegal. So what's society to do: Fight 'em or join 'em?

Two cases in point:

1. The fastest-growing Web site, Napster, allows free swapping of music between PCs. A court suit against it by music distributors who cry "copyright infringement" might soon shut down the site. But on Tuesday, the world's sixth-largest music label, Bertelsmann, cut a deal to join Napster in transforming the site into a fee-per-swap business. Napster's 38 million users "can't all be criminals," Bertelsmann's chairman said.

2. Millions of Nader supporters are being asked on Web sites to trade votes: An Al Gore supporter in a "safe" Gore state will vote for Ralph Nader if a Nader supporter in a key swing state votes for Gore. That might help Gore win and also give Nader's Green Party the 5 percent of the total vote needed to gain public funding four years from now. Several states have moved to shut down the sites as a threat to the integrity of elections. Indeed, such brokering of one's civic responsibility sounds vaguely corrupt.

Both these cases show that new technologies have the growing ability to empower individuals to challenge established practices and institutions, sometimes for the better. But when they threaten the foundation for creative works and for democracy, then a new consensus and new legal ways are needed to curb them.

The possible negative effects of the Internet, like TV, on elections cannot be easily regulated away. Nor can the easy copying of music, movies, and other creative works.

Still, swapping should not lead to a swiping of what's good in society.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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