Three-Strike Copyright

To fully function as a student in today’s Western democracies means having access access to the Internet. In some cases this means students use Content Management Systems (CMSs) such as Drupal, Blackboard, or wikis (to name a few examples) to submit homework and participate in collaborate group assignments. CMSs are great because teachers can monitor the effectiveness of student’s group contributions and retain timestamps of when the student has turned in their work. Thus, when Sally doesn’t turn in her homework for a few weeks, and ‘clearly’ isn’t working with her group in the school-sanctioned CMS, the teacher can call home and talk with Sally’s parents about Sally’s poor performance.

At least, that’s the theory.

Three-Strike Copyright and Some Numbers

I’m not going to spend time talking about the digital divide (save to note that it’s real, and it penalises students in underprivileged environments by preventing them from acting as an equal in the digitized classroom), nor am I going to talk about the inherent privacy and security issues that arise as soon as teacher use digital management systems. No, I want to turn our attention across the Atlantic to Britain, where the British parliament will soon be considering legislation that would implement a three-strike copyright enforcement policy. France is in the process of implementing a similar law (with the expectation that it will be in place by summer 2008), which will turn ISPs into data police. Under these policies if a user (read: household) is caught infringing on copyright three times (they get two warnings) they can lose access to the ‘net following the third infringement.

While some may shout ‘it’s about time that we teach those damn thieves some responsibility! Do the crime = do the time!’ I think it’s a good idea to step back for a second. Two recent studies are of particular importance here – I’ll try to provide the ‘raw’ data, but won’t do something as controversial as to try and work out hard numbers with it (I’ve graduated with a philosophy, not a statistics, degrees). So:

We start with a slightly older article released by NDP Group Inc., which informs us that 50% of Mac Users in the US paid to purchase music, whereas only 16% of PC Users do. We then turn to another article, by the same group, we see that at least 26% of 9–14 year olds are using peer-to-peer services (49% are ‘legally’ purchasing music with their parents’ credit cards). It first strikes me that this almost makes it seem like younger children have wider access to Macs, were I to make the clearly erroneous move to compress tween and Mac users’ legal downloads. What strikes me second, and less trivially, is that this means that 26% of students (at least in the US) are ‘illegally’ downloading music.

So, if you’ll grant me the jump that probably at least 20% or more of tweens are downloading music in the UK too (just based on some quick surfing it seems like a fairly conservative number), then after three strikes the family loses their ‘net connection (because I presume that laws like those in the UK and Britain are as granular as to affect households, rather than individualised members of said households). Moreover, if we take some broad statistics we see that for couples they tend to have 1.8 children per family in the UK. (Note: I realize that more granular statistics can be found from National Statistics Online here, but it seems excessive to use NSOs stats for the purpose of a fairly brief blog post.)

What About Sally and 0.8 of Timmy (+ Parents, of course)

Well, when we look at the previous stats  it seems like a lot of public school children are involved in copyright infringement. Bad kids! What it also suggests is that the UK’s plan to move to electronic school records could face some problems if members of the family are caught file-sharing, not to mention all the issues with CMSs, Web 2.0 environments, and so forth; it’s remarkably hard to capitalise on digital technologies if your intended users can’t access them.

Moreover, if cut-offs occur per household then all it takes is mom, dad, and Sally (we’ll assume that part of Timmy’s missing 20% is his ears, so he doesn’t really care about music) to download and get caught once each to be ‘struck out’. Then they can learn:

  • No VPN from home.
  • No ability to access personal or corporate email.
  • No chance to do their banking online.
  • No way to easily book plane reservations without incurring extra costs.
  • No way to access ‘cloud computing’ resources.
  • No way to legitimately participate in the digital world from their homes.

The effect of these laws would identify all members of the household as ‘guilty’, regardless of the respective members’ particular guilt – all will be guilty by association. Family members won’t be permitted to continue as full, participating members of society, even if it turns out that it was only Timmy who was downloading (maybe Sally bullied him, and he knows she loves music so wanted to make her life less pleasant and didn’t consider the larger consequences at the clearly mature age of 8). Fortunately, what laws like this do is recognise that being sensitive to situations and conditions are no more important than addressing law to those who are genuinely responsible for criminal act. I’m hopeful that this kind of lawmaking will lead to more rapid convictions, where when a bank is robbed we simply arrest everyone in the bank on the basis of their proximity to the crime. Preferably we’ll be able to round up those ‘criminals’ without the use of a magistrate of judiciary, just to cut some costs to the social purse, just as the state will be absent in judging the appropriateness of applying a three-strike rule. These laws will have at least two core kinds of benefits:

  1. Reduce the number of people sharing music and other copywritten material;
  2. Cut down on unsolved or un-prosecutable crimes by removing the overly burdensome process of establishing particularised guilt.

That means that we’ll really be making progress towards solving genuine social ills, right? Besides, it’s best to adopt these kinds of laws as nothing will get children to stop downloading music, right?