It began as a skirmish. Then it was a battle. It became a war. Now it is a bloody conflict that is global in scope. Both sides have passed the point of no return. There is no question who is winning and going to win totally in the end, despite massive carnage along the way.
The field of battle in this case are the digital networks that swirl around the world in arrangements so thick and wide — seemingly infinite points of light that represent human contact backed by technological genius– that they surpass the capacity of the human mind to conceptualize them.
The two sides: everybody vs. everybody’s governments.
The death of Aaron Swartz, the 26-year-old digital genius, seems to have been some sort of turning point. The government hounded him, threatened him, planned to jailed him and bankrupt him for life. The ostensible reason for the persecution was that he downloaded research papers with the intent to distribute them. The real reason was that he was using his skills to pioneer new methods of subverting government’s attempts to thwart Internet freedom.
His tormentors broke his gentle spirit. He killed himself before they could get their way.
But since his death two weeks ago, there have been thousands of tributes written about his life. His interviews and writings have gone viral online. The organizations he founded have seen new life. His causes have gained new adherents. Hundreds and thousands have been showing up to events to give tribute to his work and ideas.
I’m thinking here of the life and death of Martin Luther King, Jr., and how it became a symbol of the urgent and non-negotiable desire for racial justice and peace. After he died, there was no turning back. The arguments and struggles largely ended. There would be no more legal barriers to the freedom of people to associate.
One wonders if the death of Aaron Swartz will take on a similar significance in the demand for the digital freedom to associate. After all, the war against the mass migration from physical to digital cannot be won by the state. The cloud is humanity’s new home — a world without borders, coercion, or barriers. Aaron was a prophet of this dramatic change in the social order that took place from 1995 onward. He understood it like few others.
But is the winner in this war really decided? Think of this. The war on online sharing (“piracy”) has been ongoing for ten years. It has involved ever more spying, ever more warnings plastered everywhere, ramped up intimidation in every sphere of life.
The penalties are more intense. Civil infractions have been converted to criminal acts. Kids have been fined, humbled, jailed. Enforcement has involved military raids and body bags. Every voice of government authority the world over has weighed in to denounce the pirates, the infringers, the copiers, the stealers, and looters.
We’ve been told that viewing unauthorized material, sharing things without permission, saying stuff without checking with the authorities, is tantamount to robbing grocery stores and stealing cars. The penalties are higher than for kidnapping and manslaughter.
And yet look at the results. Right now, this instant, “pirated” material has never been more available online. You can stream practically anything that has ever been filmed or recorded, instantly. The waves of information, licit or illicit, are rising and crashing ever harder in every minute that goes by.
It is impossible to police, impossible to stop, impossible to control, and ever more brazen by the day. The more governments try to stop it, the more there is to stop. And yet the politicians and bureaucrats still swear that they will fight to the bitter end, unconditional surrender as the only terms. It’s the ultimate unwinnable war, even more absurd than the war on drugs or the war on demon rum.
It’s not criminals who are thwarting the efforts of governments. It is human beings who are seeking out ways to connect and share information. They are acting as people do, using the tools they have been given to find and share value. They are seeking ways to push progress in the world of ideas.
They are using the magical capacity of the Internet to copy — that’s its real power and real function — in order to universalize whatever is wanted by others. The driving force is the burning desire on the part of people to link up to their mutual betterment. And this is taking place outside the artificial borders of the nation state and creating new forms of human engagement and innovation on a scale that no one imagined possible.
But are the “pirates” wrecking enterprise and profits? That’s what we are told. But look at it. The Wall Street Journal reports that the slide in revenue for Hollywood over the last ten years has been stopped as “online revenue grew enough to offset a continued drop in DVD sales and rentals.” Subscriptions to streaming sites rose 45%, and digital download sales are up 35%. Digital distribution accounts for 30% of spending on of home entertainment.
Meanwhile, people are still going to the movies. Last year was a banner year. Same with music. We are living in a new renaissance of all forms of art, creativity, media, books, research, ideas — and there are plenty of profits to be made by the smart, creative, savvy, and talented. More than ever before!
As always, the key to profitability is to deliver value to consumers in ways that match their most intense desires. It matters not at all that nearly everything on iTunes can be pirated in some other way, that most everything on Netflix can be streamed through another venue, that most proprietary software can be snagged somewhere for nothing, that smart phones can be hacked to get things that otherwise cost money, that services from phone calls to online conferencing are available in a gigantic range of pricing from six figures down to zero.
The governments that have battled against digital networks have worked tightly with reactionary interest groups in industry. Their dominant assumption has always been that if the Internet wins, the rest of us lose. That is obviously false. There is no zero sum game here. Those who have made money in this digital world have done so the old-fashioned way: selling valuable stuff to people at prices that people are willing to pay.
We’ve lost Aaron and it is a terrible loss. But look who we have: people like Kim Dot Com, the file storage pioneer who was coming up with new ways to take power from the industry/government establishment and put it into the hands of users.
The government tried to ruin him. Read my piece on his case from this time last year: “The Death of File Sharing.” He and his service seemed to be doomed.
He fought back. His servers were destroyed but he has started a new company with new servers: Mega.co.nz. This new service is even more amazing, super encrypted with enough filed storage and sharing capacity for a good part of humanity to use. It is also the product of learning. This machine will not be destroyed.
The new systems live in the digital cloud where governments have little to no access. Encryption ensures privacy. These combinations of technologies give all users an opportunity to “secede” from government. If you are looking for a large-scale, anonymous, and affordable file-storage system run by a company that is a proven survivor, you could probably benefit from Mega: http://kim.com/mega.
Mega is only one of many new systems that challenge the governments of the world. There will be many more. They will get even better. The revolution can’t be stopped.
This is the way of the future. The watchwords are voluntarism, commerce, and laissez faire, the French expression meaning that if you just leave us alone, society can manage just fine. We don’t need their wars, their authority, their impositions, their legislation, their threats, their fines, their jails.
Aaron is gone, but his spirit not only lives; it pervades the future in every way. Be not afraid: join the side of the winners.
Original article posted on Laissez-Faire Today
I'm executive editor of Laissez Faire Books and the proprietor of the Laissez Faire Club. I'm the author of two books in the field of economics and one on early music. My main professional work between 1985 and 2011 was with the MIses Institute but I've also worked with the Acton Institute and Mackinac Institute, as well as written thousands of published articles. My personal twitter account @jeffreyatucker FB is @jeffrey.albert.tucker Plain old email is email@example.com
Geez Jeff… I agree that what Swartz fought for as it relates to Internet issues was admirable, but you are sure selective in your lionization. Remember also that Swartz co-founded the Progressive Change Campaign Committee — they of the “campaigns” to ban guns, protect Medicare and Social Security, government-mandated net neutrality, and others.
Yes, I get that progressives and Libertarians will overlap on issues (typically civil liberties issues), but I think it’s important to remind folks that even many admirable warriors on the civil liberties front like Aaron Swartz will push for more statism when it suits their progressive purposes.
What planet do you live on? In the USA I live in all whites at birth are guilty of racism. We are absolutely denied the right to freely associate with our fellow whites. We live under the tyranny of affirmative action, race quotas, race norming, and racial set assides. Maybe in the libertarian universe you live in everything is OK, but I know you will never live in Detroit, or East St. Louis and experience the reality of Negro America.
Every CD, DVD, MP3 or whatever media item that is sold is sold with the explicit agreement that it is for the purchasing consumer’s personal use only, not for sharing. When a consumer pays for this item, by their act of purchase they have entered into a contract with the seller. Did they sign anything? No, but it’s part of the deal, and everyone KNOWS it. The government is doing nothing other than attempting to enforce that contract.
The government did not create the product, nor did it force a citizen to buy it, nor did the government force the citizen to agree to the contract of usage. The consumer did all of those things of his or her own free will. A freely agreed upon exchange, freely paid for…
The fact that everyone and their mother’s sister’s cousin breaks their contractual agreement 20 times a day by posting the product for download sites is not the government’s fault. It is, quite simply, the consumer breaking his or her word by violating the contract of usage.
For goodness sakes, are you really arguing that it’s okay because “everyone else is doing it?”
Btw, I agree that the govt will loose this battle. And for that, I am sad. It is a loss of producers’ rights to control the product of their talent.
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