Power vs. People in the Digital Age
The government seems determined to turn out the lights on the digital age. And this is with or without SOPA or the other bills that were only this week shouted down by the global digital community on Blackout Wednesday. The very next day after support for that legislation collapsed after an impressive mass protest, the FBI and the Justice Department demonstrated that they don’t have to pay any attention to all this silly clamor. Congress, legislation, polling, debates, politicians, the will of the people — it’s all a sideshow to these people.
The FBI and Justice Department on their own initiative shut down megaupload.com, the biggest of thousands of file-sharing sites online, and arrested four of its top officials. The FBI is hunting down three others who seem to be on the lam. They all face extradition and twenty years in prison. As part of the sweep, the feds issued 20 search warrants and arrived at individual houses in helicopters. They cut their way into houses, threatened with guns, confiscated $50 million in assets, and outright stole 18 domain names and many servers.
And what is their grave crime? They are accused of abetting copyright infringement, that is, permitting the creating of copies of ideas expressed in media. No violence, no fraud, no force, no victims (but plenty of corporate moguls who claim without proof that their profits are lower as a result of file sharing).
Megaupload had millions of happy users. It was the 71st most popular website in the world. Only 2% of its traffic came from search engines, which means that its customer base was loyal and collected through the hard work and entrepreneurship of site owners. For its users, it was a wholly legitimate service. For the owners, their profits were hard earned through advertising.
But the government saw it differently. And contrary to what many people believe, the already-existing law permits the government to do pretty much whatever it wants, as this case shows. The government relied on a 2008 law to make criminal instead of civil charges. A newly created IP taskforce is the one that worked with the foreign governments to seal the deal.
In the end, it was a presentation of exactly the nightmare scenario that anti-SOPA protesters said would happen if SOPA had passed. It turns out, as the deeper realms of the state already knew, that all of this was possible with no Congressional action at all. Congress doesn’t need to do anything. We can watch the debates, go to the polls, elect people to represent us, and perform all the rest of the rituals of the civic religion but none of it matters. Power is here, active, oppressive, in charge, permanent, regardless of what you might believe.
Might it be that some of the users’ shared content on Megaupload was copyright protected? Absolutely. It is nearly impossible not to violate the law, as shown by SOPA sponsor Lamar Smith’s own campaign website, which used an unattributed background image in technical violation of the law. The leading opponent of piracy might himself be a pirate!
But the trendline with Megaupload was clearly toward using the space to launch new artists with new content: not piracy but creativity. As Wired.uk wrote, this crackdown came shortly after Megaupload announced music producer Swizz Beatz — married to Alicia Keys — as their CEO. They had rallied a whole host of musicians including Will.i.am, P Diddy, Kanye West and Jamie Foxx to endorse the cloud locker service. Megaupload was building a legitimate system for artists to make money and fans to get content.
What’s this all about? It is some powerful corporate lobbyists trying to prevent the emergence of an alternative system of art and music delivery, one powered by people rather than merely the well-connected.
The Internet’s great glory is its seemingly magical capacity for distributing information of all sorts universally unto infinity. The idea of the state’s regulations on information — instituted by legislators in the 19th century — is that this trait is deeply dangerous and must be stopped. So it is inevitable that the powers that be will try to shut it down; copyright enforcement is only the most convenient Taser of choice.
This is the battle for whether the digital age is permitted to exist in an atmosphere of free speech, free association, free enterprise, and real property rights, or whether it will be controlled by government in conjunction with aging media moguls from monopolistic corporate oligarchies. The lines are clearly drawn, and it is taking place in real time.
Example: within minutes after the officials of Megaupload were arrested, a global hacker group called Anonymous shut down the Justice Department’s website and also the sites of the Motion Picture, the Recording Industry Association of America, Universal music, and BMI — the major lobbying forces in Washington for restriction and reaction against the Internet.
In another stage of the great battle over information freedom, the Supreme Court, on the very day of the SOPA protests, handed down a decision that could have a devastating effect in the months and years ahead. It permitted the re-copyrighting of works that are already in the public domain so that the domestic law accords with the international law. If that sounds like no big deal, consider that many local orchestras have already changed their season lineup to remove some major works from their repertoire because they can no longer handle the licensing fees.
It’s hard to know what to call this but cultural masochism.
Regardless of how the legal struggles turn out, a culture of rational and irrational fear has gripped the web. I’ve noticed this growing over the last months, but just this week, it has become worse, to the point of paranoia and even mania. The successful protests against SOPA only ended up causing the censors to redouble their efforts, and the message is getting out: almost everything you want to do online could be illegal.
A small sample of what I mean. Just this morning I received the following email: “BBC Four recently broadcast a stunningly beautiful documentary called God’s Composer (Tomas Luis da Victoria) hosted by Robert Russell Beale. A friend in Rome sent me a link to it, but I’m not sure I’m free to share it. Have you seen this documentary? It is stunning both visually and musically.”
Not free to share a link? What? To be sure, I don’t know whether he intended to send me to the BBC or some other site that is hosting an additional copy of it. Regardless, this is what it has come down to: a belief that every email is traced, every site is monitored, every act of individual volition on the web could be a crime, every website is vulnerable to an overnight takedown, every domain owner could be subject to arrest and jail.
The battle between power and freedom dates to the beginning of recorded history, and we are seeing it play out right before our eyes in the digital age. It’s as if at the beginning of the Bronze Age, the leading tribal chieftain made smelting ore illegal, or if at the transition from iron to steel, the ruling elite put a cap on the temperature of refining ovens, or if at the beginning of flight, some despot declared the whole enterprise to be too risky and economically damaging to the industry that depended on land travel.
In the current version, the issue of “intellectual property” is at the forefront of this battle. The first most people heard of this was on Blackout Wednesday when Wikipedia went black. This is a foretaste of the future in a world in which power achieves victory after victory while the rest of the world cowers with fear in darkening times.