My Diebold Letter

Dear Dean Gross,

My name is Derek Slater, and I am a junior at Harvard College and an affiliate at Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. I am distressed by your recent actions regarding the Diebold memos.

I assume that you are receiving many letters that stress the threat your censorship poses to academic freedom as well as the scholarship and debate that, as an academic institution, you value, encourage, and provide a safe haven for. You also probably know that the students’ actions are fairly well-protected by law (“fair use”) and that your actions exceed the requirements in the Digital Millennium Copyright Act.

Instead of simply repeating those points, I would like to point out to you how, if the broader debate over copyright liability on the Internet is any indication, giving in to Diebold here will only be the beginning of your worries.

In recent years, copyright holders from the music and movie industries have sued several companies for aiding copyright infringement online.  Generally, these suits have been against peer-to-peer service providers, starting with Napster and now being waged against a variety of parties.

At first, copyright holders simply asked that services that could control the infringement of their users do so within the design of their system.  Today, copyright holders are now asking services to completely redesign their systems to pervasively monitor and filter their users activities, even if such capabilities are not currently present.  Services that have absolutely no control over their users’ actions are being sued.  In these copyright holders’ perfect world, every message sent over the Internet would be passed through a central authority first to make sure it is not infringing.

This monitoring is anathema to the values that allow, not only the Internet, but also your college, to thrive.  The Internet thrives as a medium for communication because it allows for uninhibited debate, expression, and scholarship.  So, too, does your academic institution.  If students feared censorship whenever discussing controversial issues, the debate and development of knowledge on your campus would be less vigorous, less constructive, less free.

In the case of the casual music and movie copyright infringement on peer-to-peer services, deciding whether the Internet’s freedoms are actually beneficial may be significantly complex.  But the situation that you and your students face is not so complex. The Diebold memos implicate the integrity of our democracy and the future of politics in a technological age. Diebold’s infringement claims have nothing to do with protecting copyrighted works; they are an unabashed attempt to save face and silence critics. By censoring your students, you put core academic and democratic values in jeopardy. 

I urge you to stand up for the freedom of your students, and, indeed, the citizens of this country who have a right to know about Diebold’s actions.  Even if copyright gives Diebold a colorable claim against you, you should step up and say copyright’s control has gone far enough.

If you do not stand up here, I fear that you, like the peer-to-peer services, will be asked to do far more than disable access to various isolated individuals.  Seeing Diebold’s success, more censors will follow, and they will hound you like other copyright holders are hounding technologists. 

Please, for the sake of Swarthmore and the many other colleges and students out there, take a stand here.

Derek Slater

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