Four PCs are rotting away in a Franklin County evidence room, and there is little their owners can do about it. The computers and the four Ohio Student University (OSU) students who once used them are victims of the War on file-trading sweeping across the US.
The PC hostage situation began in May when OSU police stormed into the students' rooms, and confiscated their machines and anything touching the hardware. The collegians - Patrick Muckerman, John Wieseman, Eric Diamond and Josh Cavinee - were suspected of running a file-trading network with the help of Direct Connect file-sharing software. The OSU Four made the mistake of angering the school's network manager, Frederic Eliot, and they have paid for their actions ever since.
As luck would have it, a Register reader has come to the rescue by offering up some free kit, while prosecutors make up their minds as to the students' legal fate. More on that later.
Eliot, the overlord of OSU's ResNet network, decided to make an example out of the four collegians and preserve the university's bandwidth. More than 58 terabytes of copyrighted material were traversing ResNet, he claims. Some 9000 students were hampered by slow connections. OSU faced $250,000 in bandwidth bills a year and 1000 requests from the Recording Industry Ass. of America (RIAA) to clamp down on illegal file-trading.
This is a large burden for any network, but is it worth confiscating the property of students? Is it worth turning them into scapegoats because they provided a search engine for other computers on the network? Keep in mind the students have yet to be charged with a crime or to receive their property back close to four months after being raided by OSU police.
"It is illegal to share copyrighted material, and not just on ResNet but in General," Eliot, a fan of the CAPS LOCK KEY, writes in an e-mail. "As far as I am concerned their freedom stops where the freedom of other students begins. I agree with you that (OSU) might have overreacted a bit in this case, BUT we needed to make sure that the message got through to other students wanting to do the same thing."
With that Eliot has joined the RIAA, Nancy Regan, Tipper Gore and others as a crusader in need of a crusade. All of these folk are in the example-making business. The US has a long tradition of finger pointing, stretching from the Salem witch trials to madman Joe McCarthy, but at least those hunts were centered around something serious. People had their lives ruined for allegedly bucking the American Way not for smoking pot, putting bad words in songs or shuffling precious, protected bits of data over a network.
Eliot's balls are so big, he must need a wheelbarrow to carry them around. Nancy and Tipper had enough sense to sleep with someone important in order to make their crusades appear justified. Eliot has done no such thing, and yet he feels safe in making the vault right up to example-maker. I run ResNet and so students shall suffer. I choose you - the OSU Four.
Something in his Wheaties or GrapeNuts imbued Eliot with a real sense of pride that day in May. His shorts tightened.
"Most students living in the dorms were actually happy to see their Internet connection back to normal speed again," he writes. "Notice how we didn't hear anything about student organisations being appalled by this incident? That's because Students UNDERSTOOD and agreed with what we did. And again my goal is to make sure that every students living in the dorms can take full advantage of their Internet connection."
His love of large letters aside, can Eliot be seen as a man of the people then? He is a protector of bandwidth and unencumbered access to the Internet. Rumor has it that he dons a cape when Yahoo!'s homepage is accessed in but a fraction of a second.
Eliot, however, seems to be missing the larger picture. We've reached a state where thousands of people are receiving subpoenas and facing charges that could place them in jail, eliminate their right to vote and burden them with hundreds of thousands of dollars in fines. It's not four students here and a couple there that are being turned into examples. It's your neighbor that likes punk, and your child discovering the British Invasion. Give the RIAA and people like Eliot time, and the US will triple its already record number of prisoners. This Puritan country that cries when a dirty word is uttered or an adult enjoys a spliff after work is ready to throw its beloved due process out the window at the record labels' behest.
The OSU police took two months to pass this case onto the Franklin County prosecutor, Ron O'Brien. The prosecutor says charges still have yet to be filed against the OSU Four. And what of their property?
"The students have a right to request/demand the return of seized property if further retention is not necessary as evidence," he writes. "However, sometimes such a demand is made that puts the matter on the front burner for law enforcement, which may not be in their interest."
The RIAA can cry out from Washington DC, complaining about lost revenues in the midst of the biggest economic correction since the depression, but four students cannot ask for their computers back out of fear of prosecution. So it goes.
And with that a kind fellow named Michael Donat has risen to the occasion to correct what he sees as injustice.
"I'm rather indifferent on the direction of the case, but I am interested in the speed of it," he writes. "In America, we have the right to a trial in a reasonable timeframe. However, this is one case where I am not seeing any progress, and I have the resources to counter this injustice to some degree.
"If these OSU students have not been charged and do not have computers when the fall term starts, I will donate a couple of Pentium II computers to them, loaded with Mandrake Linux 9.1. They aren't blazingly fast, but can get schoolwork done - and should be enough for their day-to-day needs."
That's a generous offer from Michael. Should any of the OSU Four want to take him up on it, shoot me an e-mail, and it's a done deal. ®