Op-Ed: Phone code use is no crime

In its handling of so-called telephone fraud by students (“UPD Investigates Telephone Fraud,” Feb. 15, p. 1), the University has behaved hypocritically. GW is a large bureaucratic organization with dozens of departments dealing with everything from accounting to healthcare to food preparation. Inevitably in such a large organization, mistakes are made and in some cases fall through the cracks.

Mistakes by the financial aid department have cost friends of mine literally thousands of dollars. Another friend is owed several hundred dollars by the University’s payroll department for a paycheck it failed to give her in 1998. Now when the shoe is on the other foot and the University faces comparable losses relative to its income, a full-scale investigation is launched by the University Police Department to apprehend those responsible.

If the University applied this criteria to all mistakes made by its vast bureaucracy, the financial aid employee who accidentally misfiled a form and the payroll employee who lost a check would be held legally responsible for their negligence and forced to reimburse the affected parties.

Such a scenario is absurd and illustrates the error in the position taken by both the University and The Hatchet (“Felonious phone calls,” Feb. 15) toward the case of the free code: no crime was committed. There was simply a loophole in the University’s bureaucratic organization. An errant phone code fell through the cracks, just like my friends’ financial aid applications and paychecks.

The circumstances surrounding the phone-code case further demonstrate that no crime was committed. In an age of fiber optics, use of telephone lines – the service the offending students allegedly stole – is a non-rival good. The fact that thousands of students used the code did not diminish others’ ability to use the phone lines.

In addition, the students’ use of the code clearly cost nothing. According to The Hatchet, students have been using the code for two years. If the University or AT&T had really been losing the millions of dollars they claim, they would have discovered the problem a lot sooner than a month ago. One free phone code, even when used by thousands of students, has neither driven up GW tuition nor depressed AT&T’s corporate profits.

In the parlance of basketball, “No blood, no foul.” Rather than investing massive amounts of time and effort to track and prosecute the literally thousands of students who have used the code, the University should work with AT&T improve the quality of the phone system and to ensure that such loopholes in the bureaucracy are closed.

Finally, any student feeling guilty about his or her use of the code should consider the University’s position as a monopoly provider of phone service in the dorms, a position that it uses to extract monopoly rents from students by charging many times the true cost of providing phone service. While the University continues to shamelessly exploit those living on campus, no student should feel guilt-tripped into coming forward.

-The writer is a senior majoring in international affairs.

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