More Myth Debunking: File Sharing Is A Gateway Crime

from the it's-not dept

There’s been plenty of coverage of Clay Shirky’s recent talk at SXSW where, among other things, he discussed the impact of Napster on our culture. As per usual with Shirky, he made a bunch of fantastic points, often presenting a perspective that is unique and makes you think. I just wanted to pick up on one point, however, because I’ve been hearing the following argument a lot lately: file sharing needs to be “stopped” because this widespread “illegality” is teaching kids to not have respect for the rule of law. Even Larry Lessig has been known to make this point. Yet, Shirky quickly debunks it in his talk:

In the Napster era, some attributed the ascent of pirated digital music to a supposedly criminal-minded nature among American youth. The argument didn’t work. “It coincided with the largest fall in the rate of crime in recorded history,” Shirky said.

People aren’t file sharing because they don’t respect the rule of law. They’re file sharing because that particular law doesn’t make any sense to them. The idea that people jumping on the file sharing bandwagon will start breaking other laws appears to have no empirical backing whatsoever.

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Comments on “More Myth Debunking: File Sharing Is A Gateway Crime”

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Matt BLB says:

Application of the 'So What?' rule.

If this ridiculous argument were true, it would serve mainly to highlight the importance of removing poor laws from the books, not as a warning to toe the line.

After all, if you make bad parking a crime, people will lose respect for the rule of law. If you make it illegal to import goods (unless you’re a multinational corporation) then people will lose respect for the rule of law. If you make copyright infringement a serious offense, then people will lose respect for the rule of law. Sounds like, if you value respect for the rule of law, the rule of law is going to have to improve its moral case.

Unless you think that respect for the rule of law, unique amongst all forms of respect, does not need to be earned, then all this revelation tells us is that we need better laws, and we should make that a priority! And let’s be honest: no good law makes everyone a crook, so you can start with copyright reform.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Application of the 'So What?' rule.

Gary Johnson was on Bill Maher the other day talking about the legalisation of Marijuana. One line that stuck out was: “when 56% of the population says to 44% of the population they belong in jail for their activity, that’s bad law”.

We’re a long way from the same tipping point with ‘IP’ reform but I’m hopeful that the public is going in the right direction even if the establishment isn’t.

Richard (profile) says:

File Sharing Is A Gateway Crime

Of course it isn’t – but draconian enforcement could make it into one – much as prohibition greatly increased the reach of organised crime in the inter-war years.

Draconian enforcement will change the nature of the “organised” end of the file sharing spectrum and the jolly “thumb your nose at authority” types who are currently active (eg the pirate bay founders) will be replaced by seriously nasty people – much as the early cannabis smugglers (like Howard Marks )were forced out and replaced by seriously nasty criminals when enforcement was toughened.

inc says:

Usually when I hear Larry Lessig bring up the point about the rule of law, to me it sounds as if, his point is that the law forces people to live on the wrong side of it. If one is forced to break the law then other laws may seem just as unimportant. This does not automatically mean that people will break other laws. Let’s face it though if a majority of the population wants to do something making them all criminals doesn’t work. Prohibition of alcohol is the best example.
What is probably more accurate is the gateway to over enforcement. Where by law enforcement uses this over criminalize your activity. Leaving you with a sense of nothing to lose, and then at that point other laws will not seems to matter much anymore.

Anonymous Coward says:

You can’t correlate the drop in crime to internet file sharing in any meaningful way.

The actual crime drop started about 16-17 years after abortion was made legal. That’s a big controversial point from that Freakonomics book. That’s a little early for the internet to be associated with crime reduction.

At any rate, the gateway crime isn’t about facts either. It’s simply about planting an idea that people can wonder if it’s true. You want old people to think of file sharing as thievery and evil. If you can’t convince people who have barely used the internet that this sort of thing is dangerous, then you can’t win.

I wish the economic argument for fair use was made more often. Sell that to the public, because they are buying anything that says the government is in the way of economic recovery right now.

mermaldad (profile) says:

Re: Re: Correlation

“”You can’t correlate the drop in crime to internet file sharing “

“I think you got that backwards”

There’s no backwards in correlation. Correlation just means that A and B follow each other, i.e. when A increases, so does B and when A decreases so does B. Correlation does not imply causation, i.e. whether A causes B or B causes A or both are caused by C or they’re not linked by cause. However, if there’s no correlation, there’s no causation, so establishing correlation is a necessary first step to establish causation.

I agree that the “drop in crime” argument is pretty weak. The “gateway crime” is even weaker.

vivaelamor (profile) says:

Re: Re:

“You can’t correlate the drop in crime to internet file sharing in any meaningful way.”

Of course you can. If someone’s argument implies a causal relationship and the correlated data does not back it up then that is evidence against a causal relationship.

“The actual crime drop started about 16-17 years after abortion was made legal. That’s a big controversial point from that Freakonomics book. That’s a little early for the internet to be associated with crime reduction. “

If someone were trying to prove that the internet caused crime reduction then you would have a point.

Any Mouse says:

Re: Re:

Not the point that was trying to be made. The point that was being made was that they were pointing at copyright infringement through file sharing as an indication of the criminal-minded nature in youth. At the same time, crime had taken a very large plummet. Thus, if file sharing were causing people to commit crime, then the crime rate should NOT have fallen as it did.

Comboman says:

Respect for Law

When laws are unreasonable (think about Prohibition in the 1920’s) people lose respect for the law and break that law (and maybe others too). The fix is not to enforce unreasonable laws, but to remove them. Coincidentally, Prohibition was such a bad law, it required a constitutional amendment before it could be passed (always a bad sign), and another constitutional amendment to have it removed. Copyright maximalists haven’t started amending the constitution (yet) but they certainly have twisted it as far as possible (i.e. “for limited times”).

Anonymous Coward says:

I disagree

I started file sharing back in the early Napster days. A few years ago, because I didn’t give a crap about how laws were applied, I started doing crack back in ’03. In ’05 I started knocking over liquor stores to support my crack habit. ’06 was the year I killed two men because I didn’t like the way they were looking at me. I was in and out of jail for a few years after that, and just got out last week. Since then I’ve eaten six babies and started kicking puppies.

Don’t be like me. Don’t share copyrighted material.

Anonymous Coward says:

I don’t know about you guys, but file sharing is definitely a gateway crime for me.

I started sharing way back when “warez” sites were still popular, I quickly moved onto fencing stolen goods, from there I got into human trafficking and the sex trade.

I’m now running a drug cartel but I’m getting a bit bored and want something more corrupt to move into. I’m thinking maybe politics.

AJB says:

Some obvious conclusions...

I personally think the illusion of anonymity the internet gives is one reason for file sharing. It’s a faceless and, ergo, victimless crime. The second reason is apparent value. I don’t think I’m alone in questioning paying extraordinary prices for downloadable product. Apple recently crowed about it’s 10 billionth download. Figuring roughly $1 per song, where is all that money going? Someone should be VERY wealthy at that rate. But all we hear about is the poor, failing record companies. If there were true price competition and the market would be allowed to function in a normal market manner, prices would drop until the marginal producers could not produce and fall out of the market. That just isn’t happening. There are monopolies where there is a concerted effort to fix prices and thwart any measure of competition. So, where are the lawmakers to ensure a fair market? In the pockets of the recording industry to make MORE draconian laws and whatever they can do to stiffle competition. Thirdly, there’s the format wars. Why should I have to pay a second, third or fourth time for content already purchased? And, finally, I often download for free to circumvent the poorly implemented DRM that comes with my legally purchased product. Why should I have to suffer impediments to my use of what I purchased when it interferes with the enjoyment of same?

Joe Infringement says:

File sharing was my gateway crime to...

I did some file-sharing when I was young, but that’s when you’re supposed to experiment with infringement!

Now I’m far more responsible. I’ve embraced the open source movement, and think that curtailing our harshly over-reaching IP laws is a far more admirable goal.

I guess that in my case, file sharing was my gateway to learning more about IP issues in this country, which I’m sure some might wish were a crime.

Xanius says:

I disagree Mike...

Mike, I’m going to have to disagree and say that it is indeed a gateway crime.
I used to file-share, but I no longer get the same adrenaline rush from the 1’s and 0’s flowing through my internet tubes.
Now I’m all itchy and the only way I can get my fix is if I roll through stop signs when nobody else is at the intersection. I can’t help it, I have to…I need the rush.
Next thing you know I’m going to have to move on to harder crimes, like taking the tags off of mattresses and putting recyclables in the regular trash!

To be more serious for a moment, saying file-sharing is a gateway crime is like saying rolling through stop signs when nobody else is around is because you want to willfully break the law, and will eventually start robbing people at gun point. Everyone rolls through stop signs without thinking when there’s nobody around, it’s human nature. The laws are there to protect others, when there’s no others around to protect then you unconsciously disregard it.

Alex Bowles (profile) says:

Something that does erode respect for the law is the willingness of Congress to permit the appearance of corruption in the making of law.

After all, people who (theoretically) spend their days writing laws should not spend most of their time asking others to write them checks. That’s just bad – unless you’re running a business that can only survive because you write those checks.

If you’re ever in doubt about any organization’s true commitment to the rule of law, their support for public election finance (or lack thereof) says it all.

wallow-T says:

My bigger takeaway from the reports of Clay Shirky’s address: we are wired to share information, and music is now information.

Look at the evident pride in any good MP3 blog — “Look what I found, this is worth your attention!” The people who source material for file sharing are doing it for a combination of ego-points and musical evangelism.

What this means for the old-fashioned music industry: the music industry is reduced to using fear as a big part of a sales pitch for what is supposed to be a happy product. That’s a huge problem. “Buy our product, it will make you happy, and it might get you in legal trouble.” Talk about your mixed messages…

Anonymous Coward says:

People aren’t file sharing because they don’t respect the rule of law. They’re file sharing because that particular law doesn’t make any sense to them.

From this I take it that people do respect the rule of law as long as a particular law makes sense to them.

If one truly does respect the rule of law, then our system does provide lawfull avenues for instituting change, and it is these avenues that should be pursued.

Kevin Carson (user link) says:

Sometimes the laws are criminal

Most everything that’s genuinely criminal–murder, assault, rape, robbery–was already against the law a hundred years ago.

I don’t do those things because I consider them inherently, regardless of what the “law” says.

And a lot of the “law” is itself criminal. It is an inherently criminal act to invade someone’s home, assault them, rob them, or imprison them for copying their own CD on their own computer, or for smoking vegetable matter of any kind that they grew on their own land or bought from a consenting adult. People who carry out such acts are criminals, regardless of whether their gang colors happen to be a police uniform. People who make profit by using criminal gangs in uniform to suppress free competition are themselves criminals.

As the man said, “Is there a place for the hopeless sinner who has hurt all mankind just to save his own? Believe it.”

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