Confessions of a Part-Time Pirate

Matt Sennewald

The internet is amazing. It has graced human beings with the ability to reproduce and distribute mass information on a global scale. Scholarly articles, academic journals and Wikipedia are fundamental sources for Lawrence students in their research projects.
Perhaps more importantly, however, the internet provides easy access to mass media, something which has changed the face of the entertainment industry forever by allowing users to freely access the essentials: movies, music and porn.
Now to the point: everybody knows that watching porn is ethical — as long as you’re eighteen — but what about downloading porn to your hard drive for free? Is there an unforeseen consequence that is relevant to Lawrentians? Sadly, my fellow students, there is.
This article addresses the ethical implications of downloading music and movies with disregard to Lawrence’s internet policy, and what changes Lawrence students are currently facing. As the title of this article indicates, I myself indulge in illegal downloading — quite a bit, actually — and am no less proud than I am when I speed when nobody is looking.
But even this metaphor is problematic, as it presupposes that you can know when you are being watched. The naked truth? Big Brother is always watching the internet, and he even caught me.
Exactly one year ago, I received an email from Nancy Truesdell. It correctly identified that I had downloaded “Sick, Sick, Sick” by Queens of the Stone Age — a file that I had downloaded in an album through BitTorrent. Truesdell also recommended that I contact her. Bewildered and astonished that I had been “caught” committing some menial crime, I replied about two weeks later with a brief email vaguely describing how I had sort of righted my wrongs.
In all seriousness, this happens quite frequently, and increasingly so, according to Peter Gilbert, director of instructional technology and reference librarian here at Lawrence.
When you register your computer to the network every year, there is a little disclaimer that you skip over before clicking the “I Accept” button. It basically means that we agree not to pirate copyrighted materials. But I didn’t read it, and I’m guessing you didn’t either. And with a new “spike” in illegal downloading over the past year, Gilbert is concerned that someone might actually get fined or sued.
When a company recognizes a person’s download from the Lawrence, Gilbert is issued an email from the company’s respective attorney with an IP address and a warning. The IP address is then identified as belonging to someone on campus, whereby Truesdell sends an email. While Gilbert and Truesdell insist that they intend to protect our students from the threats of lawyers, they are concerned about what this increase in illegal downloading might mean.
For one, it could mean that Lawrence will slow the internet. The Higher Education Act 2008 [H.R. 4137], specifically designed to combat illegal downloading, was passed in February and suggests limiting “unauthorized distribution of copyrighted material” through the employment of technology-based deterrents. One such deterrent is named “bandwidth shaping,” a method currently in use.
Furthermore, the increase in illegal downloading might mean that I wasn’t joking about Big Brother, and that we could seriously be fined and/or sued. Homeland Security has recently improved its means to recognize copyright infringement, meaning that students may not simply be increasing the number of files they are illegally downloading, but companies are becoming more efficient at catching us as well.
Lawrence currently holds a loose “don’t ask don’t tell” policy by keeping the identity of the IP address owner to the school’s knowledge, but there is a breaking point, and if threatened with a lawsuit/fines over increasing violations, I wouldn’t put it past Lawrence to sing like a — pirate’s — canary.
Ideally, we will all stop our iniquitous debauchery and become strict pious and moral adherents to Lawrence’s honor code. But let’s face it: music and movies — like the internet — are f-ing amazing, and work as coping mechanisms for our academic stresses.
Sticking with my speeding analogy then, I highly recommend educating yourself on how to protect your internet anonymity. In my hometown I’ve learned exactly where speeding traps are, where cops aren’t and that seven miles over the speed limit is a very safe buffer. Similarly, the internet has its loopholes: anonymous P2P, encryption and good friends can help retain anonymity. Look it up.
So, is it unethical to illegally download? Maybe a little. You are offending the Lawrence Honor Code while irritating a few lawyers, Truesdell and Gilbert. But should you stop altogether? Absolutely not. Such a feat is implausible. Simply educate yourself on the ways of the web and be cautious, as the most successful of pirates are.
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