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Piracy funds terror, Guardian lesson tells schools

Balanced discussion of copyright issues begins

Education about copyright and "digital piracy" has arrived quietly in UK schools, under the banner of, would you believe it, The Guardian. Yesterday's issue of Education Guardian carried a feature on the subject tied into The Guardian's subscription-based schools resources operation, Learnpremium, which is offering curriculum activities on the subject of "digital piracy" to schools.

There is no direct music industry influence obvious in the class exercises offered, but their overall tone would not altogether displease the music industry. Two basic scenarios are presented, one along the lines of 'it's a victimless crime', while the second is a somewhat more fevered report of the damage caused by piracy. As the print copy says: "Although piracy is commonly seen as a victimless crime, its effects are far-reaching" and "Set up a class debate between 'downloaders' and 'industry representatives'". No room for Lawrence Lessigs or miscellaneous copyright law visionaries there, then.

Tracking down the actual online material is something of a challenge if you don't have an account, but after a lot of clicking along the pretty route The Register managed it. The lessons are accessible via another Guardian education operation, Learnnewsdesk, which uses Guardian articles as jumping off points for learning activities, and which is available to London schools via the London Grid for Learning. Article number one is this, which you could categorise as an anecdotal explanation of DVD piracy, as opposed to a reasoned case for the digital revolution, while number two is DVD piracy funds terror groups! We like that one.

Over to the exercises. Students are told: "In this lesson you have been looking at DVD piracy. The first article suggested that DVD piracy was relatively harmless and supported students who downloaded films from the internet. The second article showed that piracy was a bad thing and that it had links with organised crime and terrorism."

Well well. The first article "suggested", the second "showed". We'll get back to that showing directly. But pay attention now, students, because "the illegal copying of films has now become a huge business in its own right and there are growing fears that its profits are being channelled in such activities as drugs and terrorism. As Hollywood studios begin to clamp down on pirates, in this key stage 3 English and ICT lesson we will be thinking about the effects of piracy and considering some of the technologies that have made it possible. We will be also be looking at the moral problems that are associated with buying illegal DVDs. In English students will be reading for meaning, developing speaking and listening skills and writing to persuade. In ICT students will be considering the impact of technological change on society."

The students are then invited to form groups and choose one of three activities: "Design an anti piracy poster aimed at teenagers; Design the storyboard for an anti piracy cinema advertisement; Design a full page anti-piracy advertisement for a teenage magazine". Welcome to English lessons in Blair's Britain, folks - learn how to be a marketing droid.

There is, we accept, a counter-exercise of sorts available. Here, it's suggested that students: "Write a letter to a Hollywood studio, such as 20th Century Fox, and suggest some ways they could improve their provision of films to the public and cut down on piracy at the same time." The options suggested here are DVDs on demand over the Internet, cheaper DVDs, and simultaneous release of DVDs around the world. Writing to the studios and telling them the current regime is finished, and if they don't start swimming they'll sink like stones, is not offered as an option, although it is The Register's preferred option.

At this juncture, shall we reintroduce the somewhat shaky foundation on which the case for the prosecution is based? Piracy funding terrorism is of course one of the entertainment industry's favourite exhibits, but the data is just a little bit dubious, and the story that "showed" that piracy had links to organised crime and terror is... Well, decide for yourself.

We didn't bother about this claim when it started doing the rounds because, frankly, we didn't think it was worth the price of a bullet. However a closer look now is, we feel, going to be particularly useful for young people who want to learn more about journalism. By using, say, The Guardian's online news resource for young people. The story itself references an Interpol report and quotes Interpol general secretary Ron Noble as saying the link between organised crime and counterfeit groups is well established, and that Interpol was "sounding the alarm that intellectual property crime is becoming the preferred method of funding for a number of terrorist groups." The Guardian here is working from a DVD anti-piracy initiative which cites the Interpol report, and this itself derives from this Interpol release one year earlier.

The release covers Ron Noble's speech to the US House Committee on International Relations on the same day. If you read Noble's speech you'll note that it is not anything like as shrill as you might have deduced from the, er, somewhat evolved version a little further down the food chain. Noble is really warning that IP crime is likely to prove attractive to terrorist groups (which is logical enough), and the couple of examples he gives are pretty tentative. Paramilitaries in Northern Ireland, for example, might get a rake-off from counterfeiting, but not a great deal is known about it. In Kosovo, meanwhile, there's a lot of counterfeiting and "long-standing relationship between criminal organizations and local ethnic-Albanian extremist groups" - so go figure.

Kosovo is cited by Noble as a market for counterfeit DVDs, while a case in Chechenia is also mentioned, and so on. Note that digital downloading isn't mentioned as a funds source for terrorists, and that Noble's case boils down to "it is possible to state that IPC may become a more important source of illicit financing for terrorist groups." Story dead yet? Surely, but we can go a bit further. Says the Graun: "According to Interpol, the high profits and low risks associated with DVD piracy mean that 1kg of pirated discs is now worth more than 1kg of cannabis resin to criminal and terrorist groups." This is the tempting soundbite that caught the imagination of the popular prints in general.

But it's no more than the obvious, considering the retail price of some DVDs and the price of dope these days (not that we'd know, of course). Noble tells us: "Other estimates are that counterfeiting is more profitable than drugs trafficking, one kilo of pirated CDs is worth more than one kilo of cannabis resin. The kilo of CDs is worth €3000 and the kilo of cannabis resin is valued at €1000. The same source states that a computer game costs €0.20 to produce and sells at €45 while cannabis costs €1.52 a gram and sells at €12." And he cites sources for these estimates - a report broadcast on France 2 in July 2002, and "La contrefaçon de CD plus rentable que le trafic de hasch", published in the French news weekly Marriane in December 2001.

Yes that's right, Noble's soundbite doesn't mention terrorists, doesn't cover downloads, and is sourced from press reports that were published two and a half years before the press report we started off with. Which does just look the teensiest bit like somebody might have got suckered into running entertainment industry propaganda, doesn't it? So here's a lesson for you, kids. When you get a press release, ask yourself, 'Why is this guy lying to me?' And don't go trusting everything you read in the newspapers. And The Guardian might care to take a closer look at the quality and provenance of the educational material it's providing. ®

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