FUD Campus Piracy

FarSide Comic by Gary Larson
Creative Commons License photo credit: Invisible Hour

With questions looming about our post-modern malaise despite increased connectivity, the hyped hive mind, ever greater access to resources online, we still often find ourselves paralyzed agents in the undertow of information. With such realizations at times like these I try to take refuge in the little battles that are fought and seemingly won.

For example, over the last year TorrentFreak has been covering a focused, yet distributed, network of people that are fighting for their rights to share and access our digital culture freely. It’s a fringe battle (and it has been criminalized accordingly), yet TorrentFreak’s coverage of the rise and fall of MediaDefender is always an uplifting story for me, kinda like the Rudy of the 21st century piracy stories.

In short, MediaDefender is (and by the looks of their stock, soon to be was) a goon anti-piracy company hired by the MPAA, RIAA, and several other media production companies to “stymie peer-to-peer (P2P) traders through a variety of methods including posting fake files online, recording individuals who contribute copyrighted material, but also marketing to individuals using P2P networks” (link). They launched their very own video upload service called “miivi.com” for the sole purpose of trapping people into uploading copyrighted material, and then nailing them for it. A massive leak of MediDefender’s internal email correspondence over a year ago brought some of their highly questionable methods to light, and has since crippled the company to the point that a year later they are on the verge of bankruptcy (a process aided and abetted by their own missteps). This suggests the power of a distributed network to stand up and fight back. I’m often inspired by this story, yet at the same time I’m not a hacker nor a pirate. I’m just a meek instructional technologist who works at a public institution and wants to see the web as a space where culture can be shared and discussed freely so that we can better critique and understand the world we live in —is that so wrong?! I mean, what can I do?

Well, a recent series of articles on TorrentFreak by Ben Jones dealing with tackling campus piracy offers some ways of thinking about this. I particularly like his most recent article titled “Tackling Campus Piracy with FUD,” wherein he traces the use of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) at universities as a means of dealing with piracy on campus:

In many ways [FUD] is the cheapest and easiest anti-piracy method. It doesn’t rely on facts, but on careful releases of information, and calculated small acts.

A small act could be starting a rumor or giving an interview to a student newspaper. Such tactics are cheap and often have much better returns than costly (and ultimately useless) technology-based methods. They also have the added advantage that if they don’t work, it doesn’t tend to count against you. That is, unless you’re caught at it.

The article goes on to detail the recent use of FUD at Elon University in Greensboro, NC.

In a file-sharing piece last week in the student newspaper, the strategy of intimidation was plain to see. If you are unaware of the law regarding copyright infringement, however, you might be taken in.

The article starts with talk of rumors, concerning all manner of things designed to instill fear; RIAA reps roaming the campus, being able to backtrack to things that happened years ago. Rumors that lead to uncertainty (how far back? Will that include something I did?) as well as doubt (anything I can do about it?).

Throughout the article, Assistant Vice President for Technology Chris Fulkerson makes it clear that students should be very careful. However, he’s not afraid to tweak the facts a little, or tell outright lies, for that matter. At one point he states that the fine is “$250,000 per infraction” which is a complete lie. As regular readers and followers of US copyright infringement cases know, the maximum damages that can be awarded per infraction is $150,000 not $250,000 (USC Title 17, § 504 (c)(2)). The most they have managed to get in these cases is $9,250, but even that turned out to be too much.

Of greatest worry was his position on the details of students. Fulkerson has said that when/if the RIAA asks for names and details that correspond to an IP, the university will hand them over if the person can be identified. As the RIAA’s strategy is to file many lawsuits, and try and force a settlement (by making it cheaper to settle than to contest), handing over details is in the worst possible interests of the students, and may be illegal. Regardless of its legality, or how true the statement is in practice, the impact of the statement is chilling to many students.

It is alarming that universities might increasingly become the space for the cultivation and dissemination of Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (a reality they are arguably designed to counter). The American people are no strangers to such a method recently, to be sure, for we have been deeply embedded in the politics of FUD for the last 8 years, a logic which is flowering in its most horrific logical extreme currently. So, while I don’t understand the economic crisis and I can’t see my way through the current malaise of national leadership,  I can be an advocate for fighting FUD on campus. it should be an integral part of my job, given that I am in the business of teaching and learning, of helping to open up the classroom viz-a-viz the web. So, I’ll leave despair for another day, and be on my merry fighting way.

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