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Christopher Haugh Headshot

Benign Illegality

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When I was 11, I discovered Napster. I vividly remember scrolling through thousands of music files by artists such as OutKast, the Rolling Stones, and Gorillaz. As a child, CDs were a luxury, but online I could listen to these groups for free and at my leisure.

And then I found out it was illegal.

With the advent of sites like Napster, LimeWire, and Gnuttella, a new generation's worldview was formed in the crucible of free online exchange. Today, our cultural mores, musical tastes, political allegiances, and visual aesthetics continue to be molded on non-threatening sharing sites like YouTube and Facebook as well as their rogue half-sisters like the now-defunct Megaupload and The PirateBay.

Even those of us who don't use the more nefarious sites have come to see them as necessary evils -- integral parts of the modern experience. File sharing is not pernicious. It is because it's been declared illegal that makes it so.

And yet, in large part, Internet sharing is still illegal. In the past year, companies like Viacom and Warner Brothers backed SOPA and PIPA while the Department of Justice cracked down on host sites in an attempt to shut down illegal sharing.

The debate around sharing has become divisive and polarizing. However, one consequence has become clear: words like "illegal" have lost their legitimacy amongst the nation's youth.

My generation has been told time and again that our behavior online has consequences, but millions of megabits are downloaded illegally without punishment. Criminality has become quotidian for us -- copyright laws, a mere suggestion. We function with impunity on the Internet, for better or worse.

And there is something horribly wrong about that. Crime should not be passé, especially for new adults. It should not be condoned or idolized among young people. But neither should our legal system demonize a growing egalitarian trend in favor of antiquated or poorly styled laws.

In fact, decreeing something as mundane as Internet sharing illegal only changes marginal behavior. My generation will not leave behind the accessibility we have come to know and love.

In the face of this mounting crisis of benign illegality, society should shun the fire and brimstone approach of sweeping criminal indictments in favor of adaptation by choice.

Despite this generation's predilection for Internet contraband, we can easily be ushered back into the fold of legality. We have benefited from a reign of anarchy on the Internet because we are opportunistic, not delinquent.

It's obvious from the success of sites like Facebook that crime and Internet fluency are not synonymous. Rather, we as a society need to catch up and rethink how to exchange content. Instead of the status quo, we need a change of the Internet guard to tap this wealth of sharing. We need innovative new programs like Spotify that allow users to access music for free and are supported by advertising revenue. Or services like iTunes that entice users away from illegal downloading sites with cheap, youth-friendly music files and movies.

Whether its pay-as-you-go, subscription, or advertising deals, a new way to exchange content without being chided by the hyper-moral elements of society must, and will, win the day. Draconian laws will not change behavior, innovation will.

On the other hand, standing pat will be a losing battle for copyright enforcement and corporations alike. Whether we like it or not, the next great trend in society is sharing, and with it proprietary ownership is dissolving.

Now it's only a question of how we want our young adults to function in society: at its shadowy margins or as law-abiding adults.

The 21st century's rebels reside on the Web and their exploits are legion. They've tiptoed the blurry line between acceptable behavior and delinquency for decades. But rethinking the Internet and copyright law is not about the Kim DotComs of the world. It's about the countless young people who are fast coming to think of our legal system as a paper tiger.