The effects of large-scale criminality

Clearly, the United States is not prepared to throw a sizable percentage of its population into jail (if only for the lack of jail cell space). But a more subtle change has already taken place. Any kind of criminality erodes one’s civil liberties on an individual level. If one is suspected of a crime, one might have one’s phone tapped or house under surveillance or computer seized for inspection. If one is convicted of a crime, one might lose other privileges — travel, voting, etc. But a society in which everyone is presumptively guilty of a particular crime (copyright infringement, in this case) is a society in which individual rights can be revoked at the whim of the authorities. This state of affairs is a profound blow to personal security and civil liberties. Electronic Frontier Foundation attorney Fred von Lohmann elaborates:

“If you can treat someone as a putative lawbreaker… then all of a sudden a lot of basic civil liberty protections evaporate to one degree or another… If you’re a copyright infringer, how can you hope to have any privacy rights? If you’re a copyright infringer , how can you hope to be secure against seizures of your computer? How can you hope to continue to receive Internet access? … Our sensibilities change as soon as we think, “Oh, well, but that person’s a criminal, a lawbreaker.” Well, what this campaign against file sharing has done is turn a remarkable percentage of the American Internet-using population into “law-breakers.” … So when we’re talking about numbers like forty to sixty million Americans that are essentially copyright infringers, you create a situation where the civil liberties of those people are very much in peril in a general matter. [I don’t] think [there is any] analog where you could randomly choose any person off the street and be confident that they were committing an unlawful act that could put them on the hook for potential felony liability or hundreds of millions of dollars of civil liability. Certainly we all speed, but speeding isn’t the kind of an act for which we routinely forfeit civil liberties. Some people use drugs, and I think that’s the closest analog, [but] many have noted that the war against drugs has eroded all of our civil liberties because it’s treated so many Americans as criminals. Well, I think it’s fair to say that file sharing is an order of magnitude larger number of Americans than drug use… If forty to sixty million Americans have become lawbreakers, then we’re really on a slippery slope to lose a lot of civil liberties for all forty to sixty million of them.” [25 p.207]

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