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RealTime IT News

The Hunt For Warez

It's not hard for broadband users to think back to the very first moment they downloaded a Web page after ditching dial-up access. In many ways, it is reminiscent of a first sexual encounter: first, the anticipation, then exhilaration, and lastly immediate gratification.

Depending on whom you talk to, digital subscriber line (DSL), cable, satellite and fixed wireless has opened up a whole new world to people who were used to puttering through a 56-Kbps modem.

But like any part of the world, there are good places and there are the places you don't take your children. One of those latter places is the illegal world of online piracy, where the latest applications -- from full-version Windows XP to the PC game Black & White -- are there for the download.

It's really, really easy; don't let anyone ever tell you different. A Google search using the words "warez" or "appz" will produce hundreds of Web sites containing literally thousands of the latest software titles you thought only sat on the shelves at Best Buy or Circuit City.

The "checkout" process is just as simple: merely click on the title you're looking for, wade through the attendant banner ads, and click "download." What might have taken hours, even days to download via dial up is now just a matter of minutes.

Figures released by the International Planning & Research Corp. in 2001 show online piracy cost U.S. software makers $2.6 billion in 2000, $11.8 billion worldwide. The report also shows online piracy is on the decline, the result of lower software prices and increased distribution throughout the world. North America, home to most of the PC software developed, ranks dead last in online piracy, at 37 percent. Western Europe comes in second last.

The fact is much of Internet piracy comes from out-of-the-way countries that don't have easy access to software most Americans consider commonplace.

But according to Bob Kruger, vice president of enforcement for the Business Software Alliance, the fact the study shows little growth doesn't minimize the damage international software piracy over the Internet causes the industry.

"Why do people continue to break the law?" Kruger said. "For one, they don't think they'll get caught, another is they think it's no big deal. We can deal with the ignorance, because we can educate people, but the people who don't think they'll get caught need to educate themselves. One of the problems is many people do this knowing the risks they take."

To that end, the alliance of software companies is doing whatever it takes to prosecute warez site operators, when found, to protect its software. BSA member companies, which through absolutely no hint of coincidence make up software that are popular downloads at warez sites, include: Microsoft , Symantec , Macromedia and Adobe Systems .

Organizations like the BSA send out warnings to Internet service providers (ISPs) and Web hosting companies on a regular basis, telling them when they are hosting an illegal site. Compliance is spotty, at best, depending on whether the site actually has the files on its servers.

The U.S. Department of Justice, headed by John Ashcroft, has rallied to the software industry's call for protection, prosecuting many so-called "electronic thieves" under the No Electronic Theft Act of 1997.

The NET Act closed a loophole in previous Internet laws, which kept warez distributors free of legal prosecution as long as they didn't profit from the activities.

Thankfully, Kruger said, the old law was changed, so that "if you set up a web site with free downloads, you can still be criminally prosecuted," he said. "It's not the case they will just get probation or just a slap on the wrist, quite likely they're going to go to jail."

The Justice Department's efforts culminated in 100 search warrants to members of the warez site "DrinkOrDie" in December 2001. The worldwide sting, the result of a two-year covert investigation, operated under the codenames "Buccaneer," Bandwidth" and "Digital Piratez."

Many people wonder, 'well, you have the URL to the Web site right here, why can't you just bust them?' You would think the opportunities to distribute warez would be extremely limited, given the federal attention the activities draw.

Not so, says David Smith, a knowledge specialist at the Gartner Group.

"Warez distribution is still a very big problem," he said. "(The Justice Department's) three major investigations have turned up a couple of distributors, but there are a lot of them still out there, mostly overseas. It's going to be very difficult to prosecute them."

So why do warez operators continue to run their sites, knowing the potential danger they're in if caught?

See Page 2.