Digital Rights Reach Beyond Tech

Tuesday, 14 January 2003, 11:45 AM EST

A young college student is accused of widely distributing the illicitly obtained technical documents of a large telecommunications firm. This might lead to vast numbers of people using the company's services for free. We're told that millions of dollars in lost revenue could be at stake, though the defendant wasn't trying to make any money off his actions.

Is this the story of the recent DirecTV documents thefts or another tale of music and DVD piracy like that of DVD-Jon in Norway?

Or perhaps it's history repeating itself.

The same basic description applies to events that took place more than 30 years ago, in the heyday of the so-called phone phreaks. The phreaks' motivations back then -- like those of satellite, music, video or other media pirates today -- tell us much more about our society than we realize.

Like the phone phreaks of yesteryear, the current crop of media pirates doesn't really need the intangible items or services they're stealing.

Phone phreaks spent untold hours perfecting their techniques and equipment (like the notorious multifrequency-tone blue box) for making free long-distance calls around the world. In some cases they didn't even have people they wanted to call. The challenge was working the phone system -- and giving Ma Bell the finger.

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