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Coercion and Power

June 11th, 2010

Imagine this scenario: you work at a non-union company, doesn’t matter which one or what you do, except that you are low in the ranks. There is someone who manages the security department, who understands the technical aspects of security really well, whereas you don’t know much about it at all. This person is high-ranking, very well-off, and has the resources of his entire department at his disposal. Additionally, this person is in tight with upper management, and is even allowed to write company policy.

Now, it appears that some people who work for the company have been stealing this person’s lunch from a refrigerator at work. Because of certain laws concerning workplace surveillance, video cameras were not an option to catch the perpetrators. Instead, the security guy claims to have acquired forensic evidence from the refrigerator and the trash, and claims that it points to dozens of people at the company–including you–as having stolen his lunches.

In retaliation, he demands that you and every other offender he identified pay the equivalent of the cost of lunch for him at a nice restaurant every day for two months–quite a hefty sum–on the accusation that you may have taken his lunch one day. If you don’t, then he will file a formal complaint against you, using the forensic evidence he claims to have collected. If the claim is successful, you will be fined, fired from your job, and have a stain on your employment record that will follow you for some time.

You may defend yourself, but you will have to hire experts in security and other people to help you make your defense, without which you don’t stand a chance–but they will cost a great deal more than paying the demanded “settlement.” And even with the hired team, you still might lose the challenge and pay the penalties anyway, in addition to the cost of the defense.

Disregarding the unlikelihood of this scenario, what would your assessment be? Is the manager abusing his power and influence? As he is in fact being robbed, is he justified in his response? Or would you simply consider him to be a petty, arrogant ass?

I see this as being roughly the equivalent of what innocent defendants face in the P2P mass-extortion nuisance lawsuit business (in which lawyers for movie producers are suing thousands of John-Doe defendants for downloading their bad movies). Even the ones who are guilty are being abused in the form of apallingly excessive fines. You don’t threaten to fine someone $100,000 for allegedly littering, or even for catching them doing it red-handed. And when a person’s guilt is ambiguous at best, extorting money from them is completely inexcusable.

Take this case of a elderly couple, both 69 years of age, accused by studio lawyers of having illegally downloaded, via BitTorrent, a schlocky violent-action film based on a first-person-shooter video game:

“My wife and I are both 69 years of age and the only occupants of this location,” wrote Wright. “Charter personnel installed the high speed equipment for our internet connection and we have made no modifications to it. If it had any features that made it vulnerable to ‘hacking,’ we had no knowledge of that. The technology is way above our abilities to deal with.”

In short, the couple’s WiFi signal was likely hijacked by a neighbor who downloaded the movie, and the couple had no way of knowing about this or preventing it. Rather than realize that a near-septuagenarian couple would not know how to download movies illegally and would never watch their crap movie in the first place, and rather than figure that continuing to attempt to extort them would result in bad press and make them look like complete schmucks, they instead smugly used legal maneuvering to essentially call the elderly couple idiots and persisted in their attempt to extort $1500 from the folks. It seems that in an attempt to give the court detailed information in their request to squash the lawyers’ subpoena, the couple accidentally invalidated their own motion–something a lawyer would know how to avoid, but the old folks wouldn’t.

The analogy I laid out at the top of this post holds true. A powerful entity–the entertainment industry–has bought off the government with bribes and essentially written the law themselves, in which they allow themselves huge rewards for what are in relative terms piffling offenses. They then use these laws in addition to the legal machinery at their disposal to extort exorbitant amounts from tens of thousands of people who may or may not be guilty of the offense and who mostly cannot afford to take the chance to defend themselves. True, offenses were committed; the lunches were indeed stolen. But the manner and method of the response is outrageously out of proportion (even for those in fact guilty), and in its scattershot attempt to nab offenders who cannot definitively be identified, they know that they are demanding huge amounts from people who are innocent and cannot afford to pay.

Read the Ars Technica article which details several cases of people who are likely innocent but fell victim either to IP address misidentification or WiFi leeching by neighbors, and are now facing the prospect of (a) paying dearly for an offense they did not commit, (b) paying more dearly to defend themselves, or (c) paying obscene amounts if their defense is unsuccessful. Worse, these people, often people who can’t afford much at all, are being forced to defend themselves in a court all the way across the country. Frankly, I think the judge should lay down these rules: that (1) the plaintiffs must sue each person individually in their district, (2) they must prove that the person in fact downloaded it and did not have their WiFi hijacked, and (3) if they fail, they must pay for the defense of the defendant.

So the question might become, how does the entertainment industry deal with piracy reasonably? Ideally, they should come clean and admit that piracy is in fact not costing them nearly as much as they claim, and that turning so viciously against the public is gaining them no sympathy from anyone. If they can truly make a case that they are losing some money from this–not the ridiculously inflated claims they publicly release–then do what most industries do in response to common cases of widespread theft: catch and punish those you can prove without doubt, otherwise just hike your prices a modest amount to compensate (something the industry is probably already doing, come to think of it). If they must take legal action, then stop with the “settlement offers,” which are little more than legal extortion–or else make the offers much more reasonable, like demanding the offender pay for the full retail value of the item, low enough that people would pay without much more than grousing.

As for the laws making the accused liable for penalties in the amount of tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars for downloading a $10-$20 piece of crap, they are unspeakable obscenities that do not belong on the law books, and should be stricken–and would be, if the politicians who write our laws actually worked for the people, like they’re supposed to, instead of being bought off by corporations.

Categories: Corporate World, Corruption, RIAA & Piracy Tags: by
  1. Brad
    June 13th, 2010 at 20:49 | #1

    I get angrier every time I read one of your blog entries on this relentless greed. Arrrgh! It’s so ridiculous how the penalties are obscenely so much more than the cost of what was actually ‘stolen’. I don’t understand that at all; I thought all a plaintiff can do was just sue for damages (what was lost through the ‘theft’) and costs. Clearly I’m wrong.

    But it’s also obscene how America supports and takes pride in having that particular species of political life called ‘registered lobbyists’. I just had a look at the wiki page – tens of BILLIONS of dollars spent in lobbying the government. Not including campaign contributions. It’s ridiculous.

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