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July 23, 2003
When The Shit Hits The Fans

Should there be severe penalties for using online screen names like "Prtythug23" and "Soccerdog33"? Of course. But why prosecute such gruesome offenses via the trumped-up charge of file-sharing?

In its spirited effort to prove that it's just as greedy, stubborn, and immune to fairness as its most devoted customers, the music industry is now hitting up Internet service providers with the frantic persistance of a groupie wrangler handing out backstage passes at a David Lee Roth concert. Over the last month, the RIAA has filed at least 871 subpoenas to ISPs like Earthlink and Comcast, with the intention of obtaining the real identities of people like "Prtythug23" and "Soccerdog33" so it can sue them for as much as $150,000 per shared track.

And because million-dollar fines for downloading, say, The Very Best of Cher, aren't sufficiently punitive, congressmembers Howard Berman (D - CA) and John Conyers Jr. (D - MI) have recently introduced a bill that could make uploading a single MP3 punishable by up to five years in prison.

The upside of all this: if file-sharing starts sending more young people to the Big House than murder, drug-dealing, and robbery, the violence that plagues hip-hop may soon disappear: emcees will be able to establish their realness simply by extolling the ruthless daring with which they amass their MP3 collections. The downside: we're already wasting over a billion dollars a year imprisoning potheads - why reward file-sharers with free room and board too? Even worse, for the first time ever, serial data-rapists like Kazaa and Grokster almost sound convincing as they portray their sleazy opportunism as a reasonable response to Big Media oppression.

Is this the last gasp of the music industry as we know it then? Smart enough to realize that fighting file-sharing by obtaining 871 subpoenas a month is roughly akin to extinguishing the flames of Hell with the piss of a dehydrated gnat, the RIAA realizes that prosecution is a dead end; only prevention can save it now. So while the average 18-year-old still stands a better chance of getting downloaded by Liz Phair than he does of getting sued for downloading Liz Phair's "Rock Me," the RIAA is doing everything in its power to make it seem as if anyone could get busted at any time, for even the most minor infractions. Conclusion: the best strategy for avoiding RIAA lawsuits is to download as much as possible. Casual users make much better cautionary tales.

Additional conclusion: adopting the tactics of Al Qaeda is not a particularly sound business strategy, especially in the long run. And in trying to terrorize millions of file-sharers into compliance, the music industry is sabotaging its last best shot at destroying the P2P networks. How? By alienating parents, who until now, have mostly felt vaguely guilty that every dollar they don't have to spend buying CDs for Junior is a dollar they can spend on themselves. But even the parents of cold-blooded murderers insist that their babies are really decent at heart, and when you tell people that Junior deserves a five-year jail sentence for downloading some millionaire's ode to mayhem and debauchery, parental guilt turns into parental animosity. And then you lose out on the formidable influence of vigilant mommies…

"The [General Accounting Office] used 12 keywords associated with porn to search Kazaa; 76 percent of the returned titles and file names were pornographic, with 42 percent representing child pornography," writes Kathryn Hooks in The National Review. "These P2P networks provide an open field for pedophiles to exchange child-porn images and lure in young children. According to Nance, pedophiles enter words such as 'Britney' and 'Pokeman" to find children downloading these terms. Then, through P2P instant messenger and by acting like another child, they entice kids to provide them with information such as their name, age, and where they go after school."

Finally, there's a way for fan-friendly Michael Jackson to repay Sony the $30 million he reportedly spent producing an album that only sold two million copies: just set him loose on Kazaa with some exclusive Pokeman clips! And that's just a start, of course. What if the RIAA underwrote a couple anti-P2P watchgroups, then hired a few dozen aging hair-metal bands to flood the major P2P networks with even more porn (and gore) than they're flooded with now? Compared to cat-eating videos and clips with names like trannyanal.mpg and titrape.wmv, even Marilyn Manson and 50 Cent seem like good old-fashioned entertainment. And in offering a more wholesome alternative to the free-wheeling world of the P2P networks, the music industry would no longer be seen as wealthy cretins exploiting impressionable kids for obscene profits, but rather as wealthy cretins protecting children from amateur cretins. And if even that didn't work? Well, the RIAA could always resort to uploading clips like howarddean.mpg and hclinton.wmv to the P2P networks. Establish Kazaa and Grokster as unpoliced cesspools of hardcore liberalism, and John Ashcroft will shut them down in a matter of weeks.

Posted by Greg Beato at 10:58 AM