April 23, 2024

More on Targeting File-Sharers

Seth Finkelstein suggests a follow-the-money approach to thinking about the RIAA’s strategy in enforcing against file sharers. He reaches the same conclusion as I do (though for a slightly different reason), that ISPs are the leverage point for enforcing against file sharers.

The reason for this, Seth says, is that ISPs have money and average file sharers don’t. He has a point here, but he also makes a bit of a simplification. Though the common image of file sharers is of kids, my guess is that the demographics of file sharers are pretty close to those of music buyers. Data on this point are pretty hard to come by, but Napster’s statistics showed more middle-aged users than expected, and I assume that hasn’t changed with the new systems. In my view, people are drawn to these systems as much because of their ease of use (at least compared to the record-company alternatives) as because they are free. So there will be at least some individual file sharers who have a lot to lose.

Another reason the RIAA might want ISPs to take care of enforcement is that whoever does the dirty work will end up looking, well, dirty. There are basically two enforcement strategies. The first is to make examples of a few file sharers. This means imposing large penalties on a few people – if the penalties aren’t disproportionate to the individual offense, then they won’t have the desired deterrent effect. Whoever initiates this kind of make-an-example enforcement will end up looking like a bully.

The alternative is to impose small penalties on many people. For example, ISPs might cut off the accounts of file sharers, either permanently or temporarily. The problem with this kind of enforcement is that the economics dictate that only a small amount of money can be spent on identifying each target, otherwise the cost of enforcement outweighs the benefit. In practice, this means that bots will be used to identify targets, with little human involvement. Mistakes will be made – outrageous, hilarious mistakes – and the enforcers will look like idiots. Either way, whoever is doing the enforcement will end up with egg on their face. If you’re the RIAA, you’d much rather have ISPs handle enforcement.