The War on Free Internet

As you might have noticed already, companies as wide and varied as Wikipedia, Reddit, Mozilla, Google, and even WordPress will have rolling blackouts today in protest of the Stop Online Privacy Act/Protect IP Act (SOPA/PIPA) bills still muddling through Congress. Meanwhile, Ars Technica hopes to have a discussion with lawmakers and the internet community at large. (By the way, Ars looks a lot better in black with fist logos, guys.)

Unless you’ve been hiding under a rock all winter, you might know these as the two bills which can force content providers (such as social media sites Twitter, Facebook, and Youtube) to pull offending items within five days or force down the site as a whole. (Yep, WordPress and Blogger could come crashing down because some Russian guy has a blog for pirating comic books.)

So, instead, I ask everyone—both of you—to go read this. (Or, alternately, watch this.) Probably the most important piece of internet-control-based literature of late, which accurately looks at the issue of internet censorship. Some snippets:

Right now is as hard as copying will get. Your grandchildren will turn to you and say “Tell me again, Grandpa, about when it was hard to copy things in 2012, when you couldn’t get a drive the size of your fingernail that could hold every song ever recorded, every movie ever made, every word ever spoken, every picture ever taken, everything, and transfer it in such a short period of time you didn’t even notice it was doing it.”

That, right there. The problem with internet censorship bills are that they’re so very shortsighted. In the past decade, memory (RAM) has quadrupled in speed, storage (HDDs and SSDs) have exploded in size, USB 3.0 has transfer rates that would boggle a Windows 95 user, and these cost a fraction of the price their equivalents did. Ten years before that, my parents were using an MS-DOS machine with less RAM than my first video card. How far will technology improve in the next ten years? The next ten decades? And how will you manage to retain the iron-clad value of copyright and prevent any form of copying or sharing without going full-blown Big Brother to compensate in hardware advancements?

And, if you think of protocols and websites as features of the network, then saying “fix the Internet so that it doesn’t run BitTorrent”, or “fix the Internet so that thepiratebay.org no longer resolves,” sounds a lot like “change the sound of busy signals,” or “take that pizzeria on the corner off the phone network,” and not like an attack on the fundamental principles of internetworking.

The rule of thumb works for cars, for houses, and for every other substantial area of technological regulation. Not realizing that it fails for the Internet does not make you evil, and it does not make you an ignoramus. It just makes you part of that vast majority of the world, for whom ideas like Turing completeness and end-to-end are meaningless.

The other big problem. The internet is a universal abstract composed of billions and billions of lines of zeros and ones. You can’t pull out segments here and there like you can in a physical object without marginalizing the masses’ freedom. And at this point in human history, our technocratic culture is so ingrained that any changes will have aftershocks everyone will feel. Particularly if the protection bill in question would allow its overseer to effectively shut down social media like blogs, Facebook, and Youtube if they don’t pull down infringements in time.

Never mind that BitTorrent is commonly used by tech companies and developers to distribute and share large-size files efficiently; Facebook and Twitter both use Torrents to keep their serves updated. Valve and Blizzard sell their games online, legally, using Torrents. And the UK Government used Torrents to distribute tax information details across its offices. At this point the common view sees the system only as a kind of hacker-pirate emporium, so the useful, versatile system will continually be on the chopping block.

In fact, the Motion Picture Association of America, a SOPA proponent, circulated a memo citing research that SOPA might work because it uses the same measures as are used in Syria, China, and Uzbekistan. It argued that because these measures are effective in those countries, they would work in America, too!

And the big reason why SOPA/PIPA is being fought tooth and nail by everyone from conservative lawmakers to left-wing bloganistas: to prevent another round of VHS/Betamax home-taping and mix-disc CD burning, we need to turn to the tried and tested Great Firewall of China method. Because this is the only way to preserve the sanctity of Top 40 hits, reality TV, and Ashton Kutcher movies.

Why might other sectors come to nurse grudges against computers in the way the entertainment business already has? The world we live in today is made of computers. We don’t have cars anymore; we have computers we ride in. We don’t have airplanes anymore; we have flying Solaris boxes attached to bucketfuls of industrial control systems. A 3D printer is not a device, it’s a peripheral, and it only works connected to a computer. A radio is no longer a crystal: it’s a general-purpose computer, running software. The grievances that arise from unauthorized copies of Snooki’s Confessions of a Guidette are trivial when compared to the calls-to-action that our computer-embroidered reality will soon create.

People tend to think of computers as the magical idiot boxes from which they can browse the web and check email. Not trying to typecast, but I’ve met numerous people who fit the “stupid techie stories” mold and confuse FireFox for an operating system. Even tech-savvy people have problems explaining, say, the difference between Windows and a Linux distro to a layman. In reality, unless you’re too poor to upgrade and use hand-me-downs, chances are many of your household devices have microchips in them. Your car probably has one, if it was made since the mid ’80s. Most modern heavy-lifting utilities you buy at Best Buy have them, such as washing machines, dryers, dishwashers, and refrigerators. The obvious examples include Smartphones, some dumbphones, iPods, your video game consoles. And even less obvious devices—your grandad’s hearing aid, your radio, your digital camera.

Consider the precedent of allowing a bill to pass which allows private organizations to monitor your computer use and data, and blacklist access to certain areas—worse, access to certain devices because somebody mishandled them—and the wheels of doubt start turning. For all we know, these could be the quiet and beneficent overlords watching carefully in the background to arrest only the black hats and make the world a safer place. On the other hand, these are the guys who tried to ban home taping in the ’80s, and arrested old ladies for pirating scads of rap and indicting twelve-year-olds and the deceased. And don’t forget, who claimed in 2007 that ripping your own CDs to your own computer is illegal. That’s right. You’re only renting the right to play those discs, not owning the actual content or the rights to use them how you wish.

I’m reminded of this old video; Web 2.0—and whatever will replace it—has already fundamentally altered our connectivity, our level of technical intertextuality, and has opened a can-of-worms discussion about freedom of information and copyright. The average computer user is young, tech-savvy, and connected to dozens of social media sites. Their average blog, Tumblr, Facebook, Twitter, Youtube page, Google+, Flickr, … forum profile… all of these interact with copyright in some way, be it an avatar, images, a photo-collage, playing Yakety Sax in the background of that video of their Pomeranians on ice. Considering we’re descendants from the generation who home-taped their favorite songs or TV shows, these developments should come as no surprise.

As the video says, we need to rethink copyright, authorship, identity, governance, privacy… the internet is only going to strain copyright governance further, and these tough issues and concepts have been called into question. Our old definitions no longer function in this world of a high-tech, fast-moving, free flow of information. And the future is anyone’s guess.


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