A bill that would allow the entertainment industry to hack into computer networks and personal files to protect music and movies from free distribution over the Internet has copyright advocates cheering but privacy and consumer groups jeering.

The bill, introduced by Rep. Howard Berman, D-Calif., will be aired out by both sides in a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Courts and Intellectual Property on Sept. 26.

Alec French, counsel for the subcommittee, told an audience at the Cato Institute Thursday that Berman's legislation would give copyright owners the tools to fight the so-called thievery of free downloading and distribution of music files and movies through peer-to-peer networks.

"If a copyright owner can find a way to impair the theft of their property, she should have the right to do that," said French, who contends that 1.1 billion files are illegally downloaded and shared by individual users every day.

Berman wants copyright owners to be able to utilize software that would sniff out and block such illegal transfers as long as they file a statement of cause with the Department of Justice.

But critics say Berman's bill allows copyright owners -- who span the spectrum from individual songwriters to big media conglomerates like AOL-Time Warner -- to skirt current hacking laws, conduct "denial of service" attacks on networks in order to delete files on personal computers and even knock users offline.

"It gives me pause that the only entities trying to block Internet access is the communist government of China and the entertainment industry," said Phil Corwin, a technology attorney who represents music file-sharing service Kaza. "Despite the overheated rhetoric, I don't see the need to push the panic button."

Critics add that the legislation is so ambiguous that it could impact nearly every personal computer and Internet user in the country. In addition, a provision in the bill would keep all records of copyright owners' actions secret and inaccessible through federal Freedom of Information laws, so users wouldn't even know who was attacking them.

"The potential for mischief is endless," proclaimed Ed Black, president of the Computer and Communications Industry Association. "Every computer and in effect, every person here, could wind up impacted by this."

John Mitchell, policy director for Public Knowledge, an intellectual property law and technology advocacy group that promotes open access, said the Berman bill would allow copyright owners to take action against "unauthorized" use of their intellectual property, but it does not make it clear whether that means unauthorized under law or without the implicit permission of the copyright owner.

If the latter applied, that would give copyright owners "carte blanche" to hack into the files and networks of anyone to whom they did not grant permission to use their music, movies, books and other writings.

"It would be a revolution in U.S. copyright law under these terms," he said.

Furthermore, Mitchell said, no agreement even exists on whether copyright law extends to peer-to-peer sharing.

Despite that fact, the entertainment industry has been fighting peer-to-peer distribution since Napster, an online music filing sharing operation, allowed millions of users to download and swap free music off the Internet a few years back. A series of lawsuits by the major record labels ended up throwing Napster into oblivion.

Peers, however, are still getting the upper hand on the entertainment conglomerates through decentralized file-sharing systems like Morpheus and Kaza, which don't use any single network server, leaving the labels without a target to sue.

That, in part, has sent the entertainment industry to Congress, where it has spent thousands seeking intervention through laws to protect what they say are "massive losses" due to piracy.

In some cases, members of Congress have responded. Sen. Ernest "Fritz" Hollings, D-S.C., has introduced legislation that would require technology manufacturers to build computers that reject so-called illegal file sharing. Hollings said he still hopes the industries can work out their differences without government regulation.

Critics say Berman and Hollings have no choice but to respond to the wealthy lobby of the entertainment industry, which has dumped generous campaign donations into their laps. But supporters of the legislation suggest the lawmakers are just doing the right thing.

"The essence of capitalism is for people to profit from the fruits of their labors," said James Miller, a professor of economics at Smith College and proponent of government intervention. "I don't think the Berman bill goes far enough."