Eric Pfanner at the New York Times asks, "Should Online Scofflaws Be Denied Web Access?" You see, some folks* believe that people who pirate copyrighted media should be denied their own internet connections.** A bill to do just that was defeated in France last week and European consumers are reported as being strongly against any such thing. In fact, according to Pfanner,
Last month, in a pre-emptive strike, the European Parliament adopted a nonbinding resolution calling Internet access a fundamental freedom that could not be restricted except by a court of law.
At first blush, that sounds a little far-fetched, calling internet access a fundamental freedom. What's next, a fundamental right to quarter-pound hamburgers? Plus a constitutional right to fries?
At second blush, though, maybe not entirely far-fetched. The internet has now become the most basic informational, organizational, and administrative infrastructure we have. It's how I get the news, it's how I write to people, it's how I access my bank account and pay many of my bills, it's how I do much of my work at home, and it's almost the only way to hunt for a job nowadays (and often the only way they want you to apply for one). Would losing all that be proportional to the crime of sharing music files?
How often do we punish a person by depriving them of access to fundamental infrastucture? I mean, aside from actually tossing them into the pokey? The nearest equivalent I can think of is taking away their driver's license. But here's an illustrative point about traffic laws: we make this big distinction between moving and non-moving violations. You can have your car impounded for not paying parking tickets, but they don't permanently confiscate the car or prevent you from driving someone else's because of it.
You're still allowed to drive after offenses like that. We only take away your license when you're just too damned dangerous to be allowed on the road.*** It's the crimes that are likely to lead to mayhem and death that justify barring a person from the road. Not property crimes; just threats to life and limb. And internet piracy doesn't offer any equivalent to drunk drivers or street racers. Property crimes don't justify cutting someone off from the virtual world, because that's where everyone is doing real business nowadays.
* Often spelled R-I-A-A.
** Presumably, they could still go online at a library or coffee shop, but not have their own ISP. This gets trickey, because many household connections are shared by several family members and some wireless connections are shared by multiple households. Then there's the possiblity of someone hacking into your wireless account, and ... it's just not as easy as saying "Here's the ISP, so we have the guilty party."
*** And often not even then. It's so crippling to be barred from the road in our culture that we're reluctant to impose that penalty even on maniacs.