Topic: Science & Technology

Patricia Santangelo: Fighting for Unethical Principles
(1/3/2006)

Someday, the women's rights movement may get around to challenging the condescendingly sympathetic treatment misguided mothers receive from the press, as if giving birth to children instantly relieves adults of their obligations to act responsibly, not cause harm to others through carelessness or willful ignorance, and be accountable for their actions. Then we might begin to discourage the likes of Patricia Santangelo, the mother of five whose self-righteous defense against five record companies suing her for file-sharing is that she was an "Internet illiterate." Someone not so illiterate, however, used her computer to trade songs illegally using a downloaded Kaaza file-sharing program.

Guns, cars and computers. All are powerful tools, dangerous in the wrong hands, and especially perilous in teenaged hands. There are a lot of those in Santangelo's house, between her own teenaged kids and their many friends, which Santangelo apparently gave free reign over her computer keyboard. By her own admission there may have been as many as fifty of them, each fitting squarely into the prime demographic group most likely to get involved with illicit file-sharing. But Mom says she didn't know that they could break the law and rob record companies and artists by trading songs over the internet.

The Ethics Scoreboard's official response to that is: "It doesn't matter. You are responsible for the situations you create, and you deserve no extra consideration for not knowing about the risks of combining the Internet with teenagers."

Mrs. Santangelo refused to pay the relatively small settlement the record companies demanded to end their suit against her, because she doesn't feel that she should be held responsible for what others did on her computer. Of course, she has also been quoted as saying that it wouldn't be right for the companies to go after the teenagers who did the downloading either, sweet little innocents that they are, so the noble principle she has decided to fight for really is the proposition that nobody should be held accountable when kids download copyrighted music illegally. In all the printed accounts of this case, Santangelo has been quoted as theorizing that one of her children's fifty friends "may" have been the culprit, but seems strangely uninterested in finding out which. Instead, she has spent nearly $25,000 to oppose the lawsuit.

Predictably, the media is portraying her as a martyr to the greedy vindictiveness of big record companies, and the illegal file-sharing advocates look on her as a hero. We should not be surprised to find out, once all of the nonsense has been cleared away, that Santangelo's challenge to the file-sharing suit has been carefully orchestrated by other parties who think it is good strategy to place a mother's angelic face on the illegal practice they champion. But that is only speculation now, so the Scoreboard will evaluate Patricia Santangelo and her "heroic" stand on the facts as we know them today.

Is Santangelo correct that she shouldn't have to pay damages for what her children or their friends have done on her computer?

Of course not. What alternative is there for the companies whose property was stolen using her computer? Scores of music files were found there, as well as popular file-sharing software. She is responsible for providing unsupervised access to her computer and her internet account. She is responsible for knowing enough about computers to understand their potential for misuse, and to take reasonable steps to see that nobody misuses her computer. If she can't or won't do that, then she shouldn't have a computer at all.

But isn't it unfair?

If she thinks it's unfair, then she should insist that her children repay the settlement amount over time; after all, they are responsible for seeing that their friends do not misuse their mother's computer. In the alternative, she could insist that the parents of the kids who did the downloading give her restitution for what she has to pay to the owners of the stolen copyrighted material. The fact that she is the one whose computer ended up with the illicit files and thus is the one being sued is a problem for her, but it is not the record companies' problem. What is fair for them is to get compensation for their stolen property, and to discourage others from stealing from them in the future. The record companies offered to release Santangelo from the lawsuit for $7,500, settling this lawsuit as they have many others. That was fair to her, and she rejected the offer. Regardless of what Santangelo says, she did do something wrong. She didn't oversee her kids and their friends while giving them access to her computer.

So what's really going on here?

This is often the Scoreboard's favorite question in ethical analysis, one that unlocks the ethical truth behind many murky situations. Santangelo is not really fighting for the principle that it is "wrong" for record companies to penalize her for what her children or their friends did using her computer. There is no such principle. If her minor child has damaged a party monetarily, then she is liable for the damages. If her children's friends did the file-sharing, then it is up to her to track them down and get their parents to address the problem, which would include reimbursing her. Is she fighting for the right to be an irresponsible adult, a negligent parent, a blissfully ignorant bystander who doesn't know or care what harm a gang of teenagers may be doing in cyberspace with her assistance? These are hardly noble principles either. No, it appears that Santangelo is really fighting against the entire concept that a corporation should have the right to protect its property against kids and laissez-faire parents who think distributors, producers and artists should allow their music be acquired on the internet free without protest. And the media, charmed as ever by a story they can misrepresent as that of an everyday mom standing up against the juggernaut of heartless capitalism is playing right along. Santangelo, who doesn't think she should pay a penalty for the music illegally downloaded on her computer and who doesn't think the teenagers responsible should pay either, is really making a stand for the ethically invalid proposition that unauthorized file-sharing is a legitimate activity.

It is yet to be determined whether she is doing this because she is still an Internet illiterate, an ethical illiterate, or an unwitting tool of file-sharing advocates. But whichever she is, she is neither an innocent victim nor a champion of principle. It would be refreshing if the news media would stop portraying her if she were.

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