Sysadmins Held Responsible in Australia

June 27, 2005

Politics, Technology

I got in the office this morning and checked my morning news feeds. I found an article at ZDNet Australia that really piqued my interest. Apparently, the federal court has overturned a lower court ruling and is holding a couple of sysadmins (from Swiftel) liable for infringing music found on their servers.

This is outrageous! Or is it. Let’s forget about the **AA and our visceral hatred of the position they hold. Now let’s consider this. If a theft ring was running shop out of an apartment complex, would we feel bad that the landlords were held responsible for the tenants storing stolen goods? And what if the landloards had been told by the government that the theft ring was in operation on their property?

Or how about this one… Are we incensed when members of a corporate board are held responsible for the illicit acts of their subordinates? Can and should the board be held responsible? In the United States, the Sarbanes-Oxley bill indeed holds execuitves personally liable for their corporations.

Alright. Those are extreme examples. And I do not mean to equate these sysadmins with derelict landloards or inefficient (and/or negligent) corporate officers. But you do have to ask the question whether it is appropriate to hold folks criminally liable for acts committed under their “watch.”

I don’t know the particulars of this case, but I do know that our nation routinely holds those in authority responsible for the actions of people under their purview. And just as importantly, if these sysadmins did receive appropriate notification of the alleged copyright infringements, then they really should have taken some kind of action to protect the rights of the copyright holder as well as those of the alleged infringers.

I guess the real question should be the following: what kind of notification did the sysadmins actually receive? At the same time, what kind of “protection” do the site tenants deserve? Back to our analogy, should the landlord have the right to enter the site and “censor” items in the tenants residence? If so, under whose authority can or should they act? Should they act on a simple claim from the neighbors? Or do they have an obligation to protect their tenants until the tenants are proven guilty?

Hmmm. Interesting questions. But these questions should not in any way impair the free use of distribution software itself. Just because something can be abused does not give the government to forebear all uses. Think of it. Web traffic can convey illicit content. Does that mean that http is “bad” and must be controlled? Of course not. In our society, we must prove guilt beyond a reasonable doubt. And just because one automobile owner is convicted of vehicular manslaughter does not give the government the right to ban all use of automobiles because they might be used in some future homicide.




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