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The Internet: Americans have gone from loving a good deal to loving a good steal

March 24, 2011 | 10:31 am


I've been thinking about stealing lately.

No, not as in "Hey, let's go rob a bank."

Rather, as in "Why are so many people doing it"?

Call it the Rise of the Cyberthief: Several Times articles recently have reinforced my belief that Americans have gone from loving a good deal to loving a good steal.

Exhibit A: The editorial board weighed in on the nonpayment of state taxes on online purchases in the aptly titled "Are you an online tax cheat?"

The howling started immediately. No new taxes, some shouted, ignoring the fact that these aren't new taxes but rather ones that are legally supposed to be collected.

Then came the rationalizations from commenters, such as:

Rupertoc: I love to buy from Amazon. It is the only way to kick it to the man. Maybe when California is more responsible with the way they spend our money, I will consider paying use  tax. Who has my back  when the legislators are selling out to the unions? No one!!! I have no way to protect myself, so buying from Amazon is the only way for me to fight back.

jake_c: I proudly bought my 3G iPad in NH w cash. Try collecting those taxes. My kids shop for school clothes and supplies in Oregon every summer tax free. 

Now, I doubt these commenters tell a supermarket clerk or a restaurant waiter that they pay enough in taxes, thank you very much, so take that bill and shove it. 

In cyberspace, though, no one can stop you from screaming.

But, you protest, it's not like we're a bunch of pirates.

Ahem, Exhibit B:

In "Dust-Up:  How big a risk does piracy pose to the entertainment industry?" Andrew Keen, the advisor to Arts and Labs, a coalition of entertainment and technology companies, debated Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge, a Washington-based advocacy group that frequently opposes the entertainment industry on copyright issues.

Basically, Feld argues that online piracy is like shoplifting –- just another cost of doing business.

A point Keen doesn't, well, buy, arguing that 9 million illegal downloads of the movie "The Social Network" alone represent a slightly bigger deal than stealing some gum from a 7-Eleven.

And what did the readers say?

On the artists' side is this commenter:

Kat: I find it utterly disconcerting that some would rationalize theft just because it's easy. And that so many would steal just because they can.

To which commenter Julian profoundly responded:

Dear World,

There is no 'LAW' on the Internet. It is a new frontier prime for colonization, as the new world was centuries ago.

No word from Julian on where we can find a Web Wyatt Earp. But I'm sure he'll get back to us on that, just as soon as he finishes watching "The Social Network," which, of course, only a chump would pay for.

Although commenter Rockin Roddy offers this economic model:

Ten cents a download...a dollar for an album. Try that and see the dent that you put in piracy. You'll sell more and lose less.

Roddy, perhaps a descendant of a robber baron, obviously works for $1 a day at whatever job he's lucky enough to have.  Plus, I'm willing to bet he's not one who's paying that silly online sales tax.

Finally, Exhibit C, and one a bit closer to my heart.

The New York Times has decided to establish a paywall for its online content. It's an interesting concept:  A newspaper spends millions of dollars to pay people to go out and report the news. And, oh what the heck, it would like to get paid for that.

How did cyberspace respond? Yep. 

David M. Kinchen, Northern Illinois University: Pay, no way...O Canada! see you on Facebook and Twitter

Joy May-Harris, Florida A&M University: Pay for the NYTimes on the web? Nope. Not happening.

Now, I can understand red-state conservatives wanting the New York Times to shrivel up and die. But liberal lefty university types won't pay? Instead they'll use Twitter to go around the paywall and, well, steal the content?   

Hey, I have an idea, professor: How about I come sit in your classroom for free? You can teach as a hobby. I mean, you could even stream your lectures on the Internet if that makes you feel better. Just don't ask me to pay for that either.

You can rationalize it all you want. The simple fact is, stuff people wouldn't think of doing in the real world, they're casually doing in cyberspace.

And you can call this stuff -- the tax cheating, the pirating, the hacking of websites -- whatever you like, but if it walks like a thieving duck and quacks like a thieving duck, sorry but it's a (Web)footed thieving duck.


Should the entertainment industry accept piracy as a cost of doing business?

What's the true impact of illegal downloading on jobs and the arts?

Seizing domain names without COICA

Righthaven: Copyright lawsuits as a business model

Anti-piracy enforcement vs. a functional Internet

--Paul Whitefield

Photo: USC student Elizabeth, 19, watches an episode of HBO's "Entourage" on her laptop at home in Los Angeles. Streaming video sites let viewers see pirated shows with the click of a mouse. Credit: Christina House / For The Times

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