Hundreds of Web sites offering pirated movies, games and other goodies have adopted a curious line of defense: a start-up page that tells law enforcement agents they're not allowed to look inside.
With a few words changed here or there, the same "disclaimer" is popping up on Internet sites hawking items ranging from replicas of designer sunglasses to instructions for stealing satellite TV signals. It orders all police, government agents and anti-piracy officials to leave the site immediately -- and no peeking on the way out!
"If you enter this site you are violating code 431.322.12 of the Internet Privacy Act signed by Bill Clinton in 1995 and that means that you cannot threaten our [Internet providers] or any person(s) or company storing these files," a typical disclaimer warns. It also admonishes visitors that they "cannot prosecute any person(s) affiliated with this page which includes family, friends or individuals who run or enter this Web site."
Though the confusing verbiage smacks of legalese, the disclaimer is legally meaningless. There is no "Internet Privacy Act."
If there were, Bruce Lehman surely would know about it. He led the Clinton administration's efforts to update patent and copyright law for the Internet age and now is president of the International Intellectual Property Institute in Washington. Federal protections apply mainly to personal records that might be stored online, such as medical charts, Lehman said.
"That is where you have a right to privacy," he said, "not when you post something on the Web and are basically throwing your persona into the public domain."
The authors of the disclaimer appear to have gotten their legal education from "Law & Order" or "NYPD Blue," said Marc Rotenberg, executive director of the Electronic Privacy Information Center in Washington. Investigators "do have the right to operate in an undercover capacity, and many do online," he noted. "That disclaimer is definitely not a get-out-of-jail card."
Nevertheless, the warning can be found on Web sites around the globe, appearing in German, Italian, Chinese and Czech, among other languages. The sites typically are devoted to illicit purposes, such as hawking pirated wares or offering hacking tips. But the disclaimer also can be found on such innocuous efforts as a Spanish chess database and a Portuguese site dedicated to bowling alleys.
The warning's origin is unclear. Howard Canten of Conway, Ark., who operates a site selling DVDs before their official release, offered a typical explanation.
"We got the information from another DVD distributor," Canten said, naming a site based in Sweden. The disclaimer "protects us so we can't be threatened or sued or whatever."
Lehman said he wasn't surprised that the same wording was posted on so many sites offering goods of dubious legality.
"Since they're all pirates," he said, "they all copy it."