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Jean Valjean on Massive Steroids

June 17th, 2011

To give you an idea of how out of proportion things are: in the state of California, if you go to a music shop and steal, say, three music CDs–let’s say with a total of thirty songs on them–worth about $48, and you are caught, then you will probably be charged with an infraction and fined a maximum of $250. No civil suit would be filed.

If, however, you go online and use filesharing to download the exact same thirty songs, you stand to be sued for $4.5 million, or 18,000 times the penalty for the same theft in physical form. Nor is that a meaningless number–that is the actual amount per song–$150,000–that many people have been sued for.

In theory, the difference is supposed to be due to the fact that file sharers distribute as well as download (ergo “sharing”). However, to reach a proportionate level of penalties to the physical theft, each file sharer would have to distribute a full copy of each song to 18,000 different people–something which is not just unlikely, but absurd. It’s roughly two terabytes of data (assuming less than 4 MB per song), which, with a rather high-speed 10 Mbps upload capacity running non-stop at full speed, would take two and a half weeks to accomplish.

Obviously, no one but the most dedicated file sharer imaginable could come close to uploading enough songs to merit the penalty–even if one assumes that file sharers participate as fully as any given average file sharer would, which means in reality that they would likely send small portions of some of the songs to a relatively small group of people (hundreds, perhaps, but more likely dozens).

This is even ignoring the logical impossibility of each file sharer being personally and fully responsible for the petty theft of 18,000 other people. Supposedly each fine is to cover the loss to all people shared to, but each person shared to also is equally liable–meaning that the penalties may be applied thousands of times over against the same people, amounting to vast multiple-jeopardy. At the very least, we see penalties for theft which are so absurd as to be criminal in and of themselves.

So, what merits the vastly disproportionate penalties?

In the end, one thing: money paid to lobbyists, who contribute to political campaigns, thus buying the ability to write laws saying whatever the hell you please. Laws passed by people whose duty, in theory, is to serve the very people the laws so disproportionately punish. Democracy at work.

Add to this that these penalties could be taken from people who downloaded nothing, but simply did not have the technological prowess to understand that their wireless network, set up by someone else, was not password-protected, in a lawsuit filed clear across the country in a courtroom they could not afford to reach, much less pay for an attorney to defend them.

There is something intrinsically wrong with a system which, even in theory, would allow this to happen.

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