August 23, 2017

RIAA IM-Spams Kazaa/Grokster Users

Many reports are circulating about the RIAA’s use of instant-messaging features of Kazaa and Grokster to send warning messsages yesterday to users of those systems.

Conventional wisdom in blogland seems to be that this will have little if any impact on users’ behavior. I disagree. Consider this excerpt from Amy Harmon’s New York Times story:

“People feel invincible when they’re doing this in the privacy of their homes,” said Cary Sherman, president of the Recording Industry Association of America. “This is a way of letting them know that what they’re doing is illegal.”

It’s all too easy for those who understand the technology to dismiss Sherman’s assertion that users feel invincible. After all, file-sharing systems don’t actually do much to protect the anonymity of their users.

But based on my conversations with file-sharers, I think Sherman has a point. File-sharers do seem to believe that they won’t be identified, even though, when pressed to explain why they feel that way, they can’t come up with a good reason. It may just be the false feeling of privacy that comes from sitting alone (or with close friends or family) in a room with a computer that doesn’t look like a portal to the rest of the world.

I think Sherman is wrong, though, when he implies that illegal file-sharers don’t know that they are breaking the law. Many of them see it as a small, harmless infraction that doesn’t merit more than a slap on the wrist. They tend to get very uncomfortable at the mention of $150,000 statutory damages.

My guess is that the RIAA’s message came as a nasty shock to quite a few people, who will now reconsider their use of Kazaa or Grokster. [Update (4:00 PM): Jim Tyre points out that the RIAA’s message to file-sharers included a pointer to instructions for disabling or uninstalling the file-sharing program.]

Interestingly, though, while one hand of the RIAA is sending out these warning messages, the other hand seems to be trying to minimize their effect. An AP story by Alex Veiga quotes Cary Sherman as saying that “there’s no enforcement connected to this.”

This seems like an extraordinarily counterproductive thing for Sherman to say. One reason users feel invulnerable is that they don’t think the RIAA would ever actually sue an ordinary user. (Sure, the RIAA sued four college students, but they made a big point of accusing those students of singling themselves out by running “Napster-clones”.) By announcing that they can identify individual users but have chosen not to sue them, the RIAA will only bolster the impresssion that they will never sue ordinary users. The RIAA may try to counter this problem by saber-rattling, but that will only work for a short while. Eventually the RIAA will be forced either to accept widespread file-sharing as reality or to sue their own customers. I’m glad I’m not in their shoes.