I once worked with a man who told me all people have three lives: our public life, the mask we wear in public; our private lives, what we keep just for our loved ones; and our secret lives, what we keep just for ourselves. He told me this, and then asked me what my secret life was, and I laughed in his face. As if I’d tell him that.

But I’ll tell you: In my secret life I’m a criminal.

I wasn’t always a criminal, and I certainly wasn’t raised to be one. I remember once, as a teenager, I was in the K-Mart toy section and I saw an opened Megatron toy. I owned Megatron, but I’d lost one of his parts and I missed it a great deal. (Actually, I say “lost” but I’m sure one of my cousins took it. They were always taking my things.)

So there I was, at the K-Mart, confronted with a dilemma: Someone had robbed from me, and now I had a chance to restore what had been taken. To do so, however, I had to rob from someone else. Would I? I did not. It somehow didn’t seem right. No one would have known – the package was already opened – but I couldn’t bring myself to do it.

Years later I was living in San Francisco, making more money than I’d ever imagined and stealing like a crack junkie with ten kids to feed. Somewhere between Megatron and the Dot Com boom something had happened. Some switch had flipped. Somehow, journeying across the internet, I’d let scales cover my eyes and lost touch with the difference between right and wrong.

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You can call this my confession if you want. My name is Russ, and I’m an internet criminal. This is my story. It’s a story of hope, loss and, perhaps, redemption. But mainly it’s a story about taking things that didn’t belong to me and behaving in ways that would make my mother blush. This confession starts in 1996, in an AOL chat room with a woman named Tanya.

I’d made a few friends in the chat rooms before Tanya, but they weren’t real. Not in the way my sticky carpet, holes in my ceiling or the giant, whistling canyon that was my bank account were real. They were like people you’d see looking down from the roof of a 40-story building. I knew, intellectually, they all had lives, families, jobs and hopes and dreams, but if I’d fired my gun in the air, like one of El Guapo’s banditos at a wedding, and one of them fell dead, I would have a hard time feeling responsible. And then came Tanya.

I’ve always had a weakness for women who’ll listen to me prattle, and Tanya was one of those. She listened with a vengeance. And she talked about herself and seemed interesting. Slowly, the walls came down and I began to see what made these chat rooms so alluring. I began to see that one could have a life in here. It might not be “real” by every day standards, but it could be as real as you needed it to be: A secret life, full of secret people, all of whom knew your name. Some of whom cared. The only thing missing was sex. And then, suddenly, that wasn’t missing anymore either.

I wasn’t sure what was happening at first; just like the first time it happened for real. But unlike that sweaty time in that girly-smelling bedroom when we were both so incredibly young and her parents were away, I don’t remember the details. Let’s pretend, however, that I do and that I’d told Tanya I was a film maker and that she offered to audition on my couch.

Tanya sat down, according to her typed description, and began auditioning. The way an actress might audition if she knew she had no talent. She knew exactly what part I was looking to fill, and threw herself into the role, body and soul. She described every detail. She had a very vivid imagination.

Afterward, she asked me how I felt and I honestly wasn’t sure. I felt odd; kind of dirty. I’d never had sex with a stranger before, and I wasn’t sure the act agreed with me. I started to tell her this, but for once she didn’t seem interested. I got the impression she’d gotten what she came for and was through with me. I was beginning to understand how a cheerleader feels after Homecoming. And then she dropped the bomb.

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“Stop by and see me sometime,” she said, and dropped the URL to a porn site, the kind with a monthly membership fee. Tanya was on the clock, but the first one, it seemed, was free. To this day, whenever I hear the phrase “guerilla marketing” I think of Tanya and my feelings on the subject are appropriately ambivalent.

And this, ladies and gentlemen, is how black and white faded to grey. Accidentally throw a single red sock in with the white ones and they all turn pink. In other words, you can lay a million bricks in your life, as the old saying goes, but cyber once with a stranger and you’re a pervert. It’s not fair, but that’s life.

If that were the end of it, I’d probably be fine. Honestly, there are worse things to be than a pervy cybersexer. But that encounter with Tanya taught me a valuable lesson about the nature of the internet; that online, anyone can be anyone for any reason. I’d spent days getting to know someone I thought was going to be a friend. Turns out, she was a virtual whore. I felt like that guy who takes home a date from the Tiki Lounge at Waikiki only to wake up and find his wallet empty and his junk full of clap.

In real life, I’d never fall for that. But something about the internet awakened a sense of community and hope in cynical, jaded techno geeks like me. We saw it as a place where, at long last, we could come into our own. Those who were there at the beginning thought of it as our kingdom with which to do as we willed. I’d set out to use it as a place to make some friends and make a webpage, share some of myself with like-minded fellows, win people over with the sheer force of my shining personality. After getting rolled by Tanya, I decided on a different path.

Flash back to that time in the parking lot when the guy in the long coat caught your attention and you talked to him, even though you knew you shouldn’t have. It was like that the first time I heard of Napster: “Hey, you like music, right?” he said, sauntering over to my cubicle. He wasn’t wearing a long coat, but he could have been. And he didn’t exactly say “the first one’s free,” but he said something similar and I called bullshit.

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I’d been paying $10 – 12 bucks for an album of music since I was tall enough to hand a wadded fist full of dollars over the top of the music counter. Maybe sometimes I’d borrow a tape or a disc from a friend and make a copy, but somebody always paid for it. Somebody always does. I didn’t fall off the turnip truck just yesterday, Jack.

“Wrong-o, buffalo breath,” he said. “I got a way you can get your music for free. It’s just like borrowing a disc from a friend, except everyone in the world is your friend, and the copies sound as good as the originals.” And that, boys and girls, is where digital piracy came from.

Don’t let anybody fool you, we knew it was wrong the whole time we were clogging corporate T1 lines downloading entire music catalogues worth of songs, albums at a time, to our personal MP3 collections. We knew, somewhere, in the backs of our minds, we should have paid for it. But it was digital and it was anonymous and that somehow made all the difference.

If I’d physically stolen all of the music I downloaded using Napster in 2001, I’d have needed to rent a panel truck to carry it home. I downloaded thousands of CDs worth of music, didn’t pay a dime for any of it, and somehow convinced myself that was OK. If I’d rented that panel truck, carted those CDs into it and carried them home to my house, I’d always have that physical reminder I was a crook. It’d be sitting there, staring back at me, ticking away like the telltale heart. There’d also be a rental receipt for the truck, crowbar marks on the door of the record store and, perhaps, some dead bodies in the road left over from the furious shootout and escape. In other words, there’d be evidence, and it wouldn’t go away when I pulled the plug on the beige box.

Stealing while using Napster wasn’t real. You clicked your mouse a few times – something you did plenty of every day – and boom, free music. If there was a crime committed it was vaporous, occurring in that grey space between the lines of the language of the law. It’s not a crime because the laws haven’t been written yet. Welcome to the underworld, kid.

I eventually grew out of my Napster obsession, but not all the way. There was still, in the back of my mind, a nagging feeling that digital meant “not real,” and that normal rules didn’t apply. “It’s the Wild West,” we’d say, as if that made it alright. A couple of lowlifes, sitting on an empty railroad platform, taking potshots with their six irons at the locals saying “There’s no law, this is the Wild West!” You walk up behind them with your tin star on your chest and say “That don’t make it right,” before you plug them both in the head with a Peacemaker Colt.

I eventually moved on to games, while I waited for the Marshall to arrive. Actually I only stole one game, but I stole it sure enough. I remember it to this day. It was Medal of Honor: Allied Assault. Later, after I’d played it all the way through, I burned a disc to remind myself it was real and I’d stolen it. I even bought the game to purge my conscience, but I wasn’t planning to buy it when I stole it. I just wanted to play it, and couldn’t afford to pay. Simple as that. The black was me wanting it, the white was not having the money, and there I was, wallowing in the vast, digital, anonymous grey of the internet.

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In the end it comes back down to the basics. You know right from wrong. You know what belongs to you and what doesn’t. In a world where you can be committing a crime in the background, while using that same PC to donate money to charity, the only authority with the power to hold you accountable for your crimes is you. Same as always, if we want to world to be a better place then we have to make it that way ourselves, brick by brick.

Russ Pitts spends part of every day tracking down people who steal content and reporting them. Sometimes, it takes a thief to catch a thief. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com

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