Hypertabs is The Varsity‘s online features subsection about all things Internet. Our goal is to explore the depths of the online world and understand how it shapes our habits and affects our communities. You can read the other articles included in this project here.

Currently, the economy is tough, especially for young people: jobs are hard to find, wages are low, and living near a metropolitan area is ridiculously expensive. On the bright side, we have access to a variety of cheap entertainment in the form of digital media streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, which are reasonably priced and offer plenty of options for the modern consumer. If streaming services don’t have what you want, or if spending money isn’t your jam, you can still visit your favourite torrent sites and download almost any song or movie you could desire.

The rapid increase in the availability of digital media has given people access to movies and music that used to be prohibitively expensive — at least if you were collecting. Today, people are more likely to experiment and broaden their tastes because of the accessibility of media, trying new things for which they never would have paid. Now anyone with a computer and an Internet connection has freedom to explore today’s rich cultural landscape by torrenting. As Drake and Future would say: “what a time to be alive.”

Too bad it’s illegal, though.

I interviewed Martin Loeffler, director of information security at U of T, about torrenting using the campus Wi-Fi. “Torrenting itself isn’t illegal,” he pointed out, because it’s just a way to share files between computers. “If people are torrenting or downloading or otherwise accessing copyrighted materials without authorization, I want them to know that it is against the law, and  . . . [there are] potential penalties for that just like breaking any other law,” Loeffler said.

The Copyright Modernization Act (Bill C-11) states that for non-commercial infringements, a Canadian’s liability is a maximum of $5000 for all infringements per proceeding. In other words, it can be expensive if you get caught downloading free stuff. As part of this bill, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) are obligated to notify their clients when the copyright holder informs the ISP that they suspect a copyright infringement has taken place. The ISP must also hold the information of the client for at least six months, or longer depending on whether or not the complaint goes to court.

Loeffler doesn’t keep statistics on how many of these notices U of T has forwarded to alleged infringers, but he said “If we receive a copyright infringement notice for somebody using the Wi-Fi environment, we block their Wi-Fi access, and they have to go to the help desk to get their access unblocked.”

The help desk also advises the infringer to stop torrenting. Copyright holders, like record labels and movie studios, are interested in what you’re torrenting, but Loeffler’s office isn’t: “We monitor the network activity for use, for threats. It’s our role to look after the well-being of the network and people using the network — we’re sort of like Batmen — but we don’t get into what you’re actually doing… [W]e’re not in the position to make that judgement. So if we noticed that there was a torrent happening, unless it was consuming too much bandwidth, we have no reason to get involved.”

Andrew Sepielli, assistant professor of philosophy at U of T specializing in metaethics, normative ethics, and philosophical psychology, had some insights on the topic of torrenting. I confessed my dilemma of wanting to torrent Justin Bieber’s newest album, but feeling guilty about taking an artist’s work for free. “The more grievous wrong is clearly just listening to the Justin Bieber album,” he quipped. Sepielli doubts people feel all that bad about torrenting: “I’m not convinced that most people think it’s wrong, and even if they say it’s wrong, I suspect … [that] doesn’t reflect their sincerely held views about right and wrong.”

Sepielli’s argument for torrenting not being that immoral of an action is that one person’s torrenting has only a small negative effect. “Some people have this kind of view that [if] you’re one member of a group where the group together is having a huge impact and the impact is bad, that kind of redounds to the discredit of what you’re doing. I guess I just don’t think that’s right,” he explains. Sepielli feels that “what’s relevant in assessing my action is the impact my action makes specifically.”

On the website for the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), the organization claims that music copyright infringement is music theft. There are similarities between torrenting a copyrighted album and stealing in a traditional sense: both result in undeserved benefit of the person committing the act at the expense of the owner of the work. Sepielli points out some differences between torrenting and stealing, however, stating “the expressive value of the act is different.” He explains that stealing is an expression of disrespect for the person from whom you’re stealing.

In contrast, when you torrent an album from an artist you like, even though you may be harming them financially, you’re respecting them as an artist by listening to their work. “Because of the technology available, it’s really getting difficult to exclude people from enjoying other people’s creations,” Sepielli said.  He notes that getting consumers to pay for the production of music and movies is becoming increasingly difficult, and that digital media is moving towards becoming a public good.

Sepielli’s academic interest is in combating nihilism and anomie manifested online. For him, torrenting is an example of online behaviour that can’t be compared to negative Internet discourse and cyberbullying, which are much more concerning. “Discussions on the internet are, like, terrible.” Sepielli said. They’re “shallow and mean.” On the topic of cyberbullying, he notes, “I’ve never experienced it, but I have two young children so I worry about that kind of stuff.” He’s currently writing a therapeutic philosophy book to combat these problems. When it comes out, he doesn’t mind if you torrent the book — although he does want the publisher to make money through legal sales.

Some of us obey copyright law to the letter; some of us torrent everything we can get our hands on; some of us torrent successful artists and support the struggling ones; some of us torrent when we’re feeling poor and buy when we’re feeling rich; and some of us torrent movies but never software. Everyone has their own ‘bit-ethics’ that they follow when deciding whether or not to torrent. The new Kanye West album — whatever it’s called — just came out, so it’s time to make my decision: Kickass or Piratebay?

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