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Volume 70, Issue 60, Monday, November 15, 2004

Opinion

Ashcroft leaves behind controversial legacy

Matt Bean
Opinion Columnist

So, the end of the Ashcroft Era has finally come, and the era of Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, the first Hispanic attorney general, is poised to begin. Ashcroft did a lot, and he had higher profile than most of the attorney generals that served in the past. The usefulness of what he did is certainly debatable. After 9/11, Ashcroft was cast into the limelight as the chief law enforcement official in the country. Showtime!

For many, he is best known for his staunch backing of the controversial USA Patriot Act -- a bill that could have only been passed in the wake of terrorist attack while the nation was reeling from shock. 

The full text of the Patriot Act is easy to find online, and it is fairly lengthy, containing a bulleted list of just about every possible illegal terrorist activity and the government's abilities to stop it. It was widely criticized for invading the privacy of U.S. citizens, and the backlash hurt Ashcroft's public image. 

In reality, the bill reiterates a number of things that could have already been done by the government, and simplifies the channels required to obtain information in most cases.

The Patriot Act made it easier for government agencies to share records, but it also broadened the definition of terrorist, and gave more direct power to executive officials to combat terrorism, setting up provisions for DNA profiling, wiretapping and monetary rewards for combating terrorism. 

Most Americans can't help but get a sense of Big Brother-esque uneasiness when we think of the increased jurisdiction of the FBI, Secret Service and others.

Ashcroft was also a vigorous defender of intellectual property rights, another extremely sticky situation. A company has the legal right to protect its intellectual property, and it makes sense to do so. Downloading copyrighted music and movies from the Internet is illegal. Nevertheless, the issue should be handled tactfully.

What resulted was the RIAA, and more recently the MPAA, taking alleged music and movie pirates to court. This, of course, was not Ashcroft's doing, but under his direction, the Department of Justice did launch its most aggressive IP enforcement campaign, paving the way for even more customers to be sued by big business.

Is that allowed? Well, yes. People who commit crimes can, and should, be brought to trial in most cases. In this case, however, the accused criminals ranged from people downloading a handful of showtunes to someone hosting an illegal music server packed with gigabytes of copyrighted material.

Instead of picking and choosing, the RIAA decided to go after everyone, launching a scare campaign, and the Department of Justice went with it.

More recently, the department allowed file-sharing networks to be sued, on the grounds that they induced copyright infringement. This hearkens back to the famous Supreme Court Betamax decision, where VCR's were almost outlawed because they allowed shows to be bootlegged and shared.

Naturally, this is a dangerous precedent, and I feel the wrong channels have been targeted.

Nobody can be sure what Ashcroft's legacy will be, and his tenure as attorney general was often highly controversial, but I look forward to a new era with Gonzales, should his appointment be approved.

Bean, a columnist for The Daily Cougar, 
can be reached at me@mattbean.com

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