Have File Sharing Networks Compromised Morality?

Geek!This is Jeremy Mentley’s submission for the HP Magic Giveaway. Feel free to leave comments for this article as you see fit – your feedback is certainly welcomed! If you’d like to submit your own how-to, what-is, or top-five list, you can send it to me. Views and opinions of this writer are not necessarily my own:

Imaging yourself strolling the aisles of a Best Buy or perhaps another comparable retailer. Enthralled by the miscellanea of tech commodity, your saunter is relaxed and enjoyable. Thumbing through the selection of DVDs, you spot a movie of interest. (Huzzah!) Without second thought, a quick glance over the shoulder, or any conceivable sign of hesitation, you slip the DVD into your coat, walk past the registers, and exit the store.

If my judgment is correct, I suspect every member of this community has difficulty fathoming his or her personal involvement in such an act. For the majority of us, the concept of right and wrong is instilled in us at an early age — this indoctrination guides our decisions away from accumulation via unjust means. Unfortunately, while we all can explain why the previous hypothetical scenario is improper and morally wrong, a significant population of web users are apparently confusion in regards to the exact same crime, though under different means. Since the inception of digitized media and the internet, billions upon billions of bootleg files have been copied, swapped, and transfered. “Peer to peer” networks like Napster, KaZaA, LimeWire, and other various torrent clients have simplified and amplified the trafficking of such files to an alarming extent. More alarming, perhaps, is the fact that these file transfers are being perpetrated non-exclusively by otherwise moral and law-abiding individuals. In 2006 alone, an estimated FIVE BILLION songs were exchanged. Why are media thefts so rampant online? How do we attribute these astronomical figures? Are peer-to-peer networks to blame?

Let me continue with another [hopefully] hypothetical scenario. Suppose you’re up during the wee hours of the night, parked in front of a glowing monitor. Like dozens of sleepless nights before, you are watching “people getting hurt” videos on Youtube. After a montage of face-plants, bicycle accidents, and botched athletic maneuvers, you and your browser find their way to a torrent file search site. In a few key taps and a couple clicks of the mouse later, a DVD rip of ‘Philadelphia’ begins to download. In this instance, is this action less worse than the theft from a brick and mortar store? (If your answer is at all influenced on the fact that ‘Philadelphia’ is an awesome movie, please be mindful that the morality of theft takes precedence.) Fundamentally speaking, both actions are equally as bad. Both actions end with the same result: theft. Only the means in which this theft were perpetrated is different — and consequently, gives leeway to perceived justification. Downloading from peer to peer networks is impersonal, discrete, and surprisingly easy. It may be a factor that the lack of a visible victim negates the guilt that a perpetrator would normally experience. The down and dirty truth of the matter seems to be that people do not make the connection between downloading media and breaking the law. Once more, since today’s youth are synonymously poor and media-hungry, rationalization for illegally downloading invariably becomes: “because I wouldn’t be able to afford this anyway, it doesn’t really matter that I’m not paying.”

This beckons the question, “are peer-to-peer networks to blame?” While these applications seem to the panderers of illegal material, ultimately it is the user who chooses to implement them. No crime should ever be justified because it is easy to commit. Car thieves should not go unpunished because a careless drive left his or her keys in the ignition. The elimination of peer-to-peer networks would do a great deal to thwart the illicit trade of movies and albums, but ultimately, it is people’s perception of right and wrong that’s at the heart of the issue.

It is not my intention to accuse, scold, or talk down to anyone in this community — I only voice these concerns because it is my hope that you, the readers… the intellectual, tech-savvy members of this assemblage, keep these concepts in mind as you invariably educate others on the wonders of the web. My only endeavor is to propagate that slipping a DVD into a coat and walking out of the door is not any more dishonest than downloading that very same movie from a personal computer. When we let illegal activity persist online, we invite the prospect of regulation to stop that rampant practice… When the web becomes regulated, censored, and contained, we lose the openness and possibilities that drew us to it in the first place. While it is disheartening to know it literally takes a home re-mortgage to fill an iPod completely with purchased music, such does not excuse thievery.

I am understandably curious to hear other reader opinions.