Saturday, May 03, 2008

Selective Prosecution and Enforcement

Whittier College is consistently ranked as the most diverse liberal arts college in the U.S. Teaching topics such as globalization and first-year seminar here, I frequently encounter one of the challenges/strengths of having a diverse student body. For example: while Whittier students are definitely engaged, entrepreneurial, and have a very good sense of social justice, many of them, like me, come from upper-middle class backgrounds and are not exposed to structural or institutional violence such as police repression, severely underfunded schools or selective prosecution of crimes. Therefore, helping people to see through other lenses and to look at their society in novel ways has become a veritable leitmotif of my teaching, regardless of the context (global studies, language courses, first-year seminar, theater, etc.).

Well, here's a case even the most privileged can understand. The RIAA has been sending out thousands and thousands of letters to universities and colleges around the country. Somehow, Harvard has been exempt. Something tells me that it's not because Harvard freshmen are significantly more honest than the average person, so there must be something else afoot. Read to the end of the Wired posting for their take, which I tend to agree with.

It must be the water at Harvard University.

Illegal online trading of digital music files is running rampant in universities across the nation, but not at Harvard, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

The RIAA, the legal lobbying group for the music industry, has sent out hundreds if not thousands of letters to universities asking them to "remove or disable access" to infringing materials the RIAA has detected on IP addresses linked to schools ranging from MIT, Stanford, University of Chicago to UC Berkeley and dozens more.

THREAT LEVEL reported Wednesday that there is a sudden surge in these so-called take-down notices, which often are the precursors to legal action by the RIAA seeking the student's identity behind the IP address who is oftentimes then sued.

Harvard, however, seems immune from the RIAA's file-sharing campaign that commenced last year against universities. Perhaps it's something in the water system at the Cambridge, MA.-based university that is hindering Harvard students from doing what their fellow students area doing at other universities.

"Harvard hasn't gotten prelitigation letters or subpoenas asking for identification of an IP address," said Wendy Selzter, a Berkman Center for Internet & Society fellow. (A prelitigtion letter is one in which the RIAA sends to the school, and asks the school to forward to its students asking them to settle for thousands of dollars or face court action.)

Whether it’s the water, the RIAA says Harvard students are exercising file-sharing restraint.

"While we have detected incidences of theft on the Harvard network, the levels are not sufficient enough to warrant legal action. Of course, this could always change, depending on what we find," RIAA spokeswoman Cara Duckworth tells THREAT LEVEL.

Duckworth said no school was "immune," not even Harvard.

"We try to manage our program in the most efficient and effective way possible with the resources that we have," Duckworth said. "When we detect certain levels of piracy on school networks we reserve the right to bring legal action."

Seltzer had her own theory about the RIAA's tactics. "It might be that somebody doesn’t want to go against the Harvard legal team or endowment or law faculty or brand," she said.

Perhaps the RIAA doesn't wish to make waves with the next-generation of the rich and powerful. Also, Charles Nesson, of the Berkman Center at Harvard, has told the RIAA in an open letter "to take a hike." [my emphasis]

Nesson, as part of his evidence class, also requires students to draft motions quashing a subpoena from the RIAA demanding the identity behind a university IP address.