Privacy and piracy: What are we telling the kids?

The lesson is that ownership of information is a corporate right, and that people are only licensors.

I can't find much difference between the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) members' business model and a band of large-scale ticket scalpers, but lately they and their music-industry cousins in the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) are exhibiting the collective cojones of a bank robber demanding change for the getaway car's parking meter.

During the past few weeks, the MPAA has asked both for Congress to pay for enforcement of their dubious and withering business model as if it were law (as, unfortunately, some now is), and for universities to conduct discovery for them by running the MPAA's privacy-busting monitoring systems.

While I understand the frustration of artists and performers whose recorded works are taken and distributed without consent or compensation, the MPAA and RIAA seem to be doing as much for the rights of those artists as the media consumers -- that is to say, not much. In fact, there's every indication that these trade federations are doing a whole lot more harm than good, ensuring short-term profits for their members at the expense of both their own longevity and the US legal system as it concerns intellectual works.

Worse, it's misusing information security technology to breed a generation of cynics, whose dim view of security, privacy and information governance puts us on the road to lost opportunity (via way stations of mistrust and apathy). It's worth setting aside the legal minutiae, and the moral debate as RIAA and the MPAA are attempting to frame it, to consider the messages this mess sends the kids.

"You're all thieves"

Is there a child or teenager who never stole a candy bar from his aunt or the local store? Misappropriating an item of trivial value, having to return it and facing stern words from a parent or store owner is an essential rite of passage into adulthood. I remember hearing reruns of late night golden-age AM radio lamenting the fate of children whose lax moral training and forgiving parents led to a life of crime and premature demise.

But in real life, we teach kids the difference between theft and borrowing, and between pilfering a candy bar and stealing an ambulance (as a relative of mine once did) based on the action and its consequences.

We also teach a sense of presumed innocence until a preponderance of evidence indicates guilt. Through primary and middle school we might maintain this idealism, but presumed guilt is creeping downward in age, from college to high school. Not content with having Internet service providers monitor individuals users to track them down at home and school, a few weeks ago the MPAA sent letters (PDF format) to US universities and colleges, requesting that they download and install an MPAA-accessible monitoring and tracking system on their internal networks.

Instead of following instances of infringing use, being constantly watched makes it plain that criminal intent is assumed on the part of students at these universities. Like an overzealous store detective following a band of kids from the moment they enter an establishment, this approach always backfires: Inevitably one or more otherwise well-intended subject is offended and thinks "Well, if you're going to treat me like a thief, then I'll..." One campus full of kids thinking this way is serious trouble, but we're on the verge of having an entire age group turn down this path.

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Jon Espenschied

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