Two Views of the Internet
The barely-defeated legislation called SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) hit out of the blue and caused a global scramble among the smart set to make sure it was defeated. It was a close call, and the legislation isn’t going away. It will come back and back again, and it will require relentless vigilance to keep this menace at bay.
This fact alone is supremely annoying. Why should we have to spend our time fighting so hard for what should really be our natural right to speak and share, to associate with fellow human beings through digital media? Why should we have to waste our time explaining dynamic digital networks to a gang of racketeering geezers with the political power to wreck things but no means to create anything of value?
In the week that followed the big fight, I’ve been thinking about the implications of the legislation, which itself amounts to a drastic change in the way people go about running their digital lives. Many opponents rightly warned that it could mean the end of Wikipedia, Google, Youtube, millions of blogs, Facebook, and just about everything else. I had supposed that this would amount to what is called an “unintended consequence” of legislation. In the name of supporting property rights, the advocates of SOPA would inadvertently smash the most productive and innovate tool of our times.
But it occurs to me (finally) that there is more going on here than just that. Let me quickly tell a story to illustrate the point. On a blog, I had posted something on Youtube that was an audio recording of a short narrative. It was no big deal. The video had been posted by many others, and I thought nothing of it. Then suddenly I received a take-down notice from a big magazine. The text itself was from their publication and the recording was unauthorized. It was a remix.
I explained that I had nothing to do with making the recording; I was merely linking it, and, moreover, I had no idea of the source. This settle nothing: the company was relentless in demanding either credit or take down. I was blown away by this. The Youtube poster from whom I linked had in fact credited the source. In any case, if they didn’t want someone to record the text, they shouldn’t have put it online. And, what’s more, why be upset about this? It is a great thing to have published something that someone else found worthy of spreading and remixing.
But the correspondent didn’t buy it. He was mad at the Youtuber, mad at me, mad at the Internet, and mad at the world. After all, he said, this short text was taken without permission and posted somewhere else in a different form. This amounts to piracy, he said. Certainly, under SOPA, not only would Youtube get hammered; I would too, and so would every Facebooker who posted the video. The law would be biased in this guy’s favor, regardless of the injustice and regardless of the realities of the Internet that he clearly does not understand.
As I thought about this, I suddenly realized something. SOPA is not just dangerous legislation supported by self-interested people that would have inadvertently bad results. The result of transforming the way the World Wide Web works is precisely what they have in mind. They want to enact a dramatic shift in the entire way that digital media works in service of humanity.
Some background here. The reason the Internet fired up a generation of digital activist and brought about the greatest explosion of human-serving innovating in history is that it permits the building of real-time network of information sharing. It is a low-cost, instantaneously working means of merging the products of individual human minds so that the results will be greater than the sum of the parts. The technology is brilliant but what makes it all come together is the individual human being who has the opportunity to contribute knowledge to something greater than himself.
The results of communication without the Internet are what gave rise to the technology explosion of the late 19th century, as Robert Higgs and Deirdre McCloskey have argued. It works like yeast with flour, sugar, and water. It becomes something bigger and grander than anyone first imagined. What the Internet did was take this model to a new level, expanding the number of participants and increasing the range of materials that could be shared. In other words, the Internet really amounted to mankind’s most successful effort at intellectual collaboration toward everyone’s mutual betterment. (If you are curious about this vision, have a look at the writings of Richard Stallman, whose work I’ve begun to appreciate ever more.)
The advocates of SOPA hear everything I just described as the glorification of piracy and looting on a mass scale. Collaboration is stealing. Learning is theft. Passing on and linking is graft. You can look, but you can’t act. You can hear, but not learn. There should be no consumption without contract and no competition under any circumstances.
To see an analogy of how they see the digital, consider television. Each channel does something different and their is no relationship between the channels. Each exists on its own. You are either watching one or you are watching another. It is ridiculous to speak of collaboration between them. No one “links” from one channel to another. We are not content providers to television. We are pure consumers, and a strict wall separates us from producers.
This is the old world way of doing things, and it is precisely what the Internet changed everything. The advocates want to change that back again and tear the heart out of what makes the Internet different from anything else that came before. In this sense, they are Luddites who are desperate to turn back the clock, kill the innovative spirit, and wreck the medium that accounts for the large part of global productivity of the last ten years. Does that sound crazy? It is, but this is what SOPA would do and what SOPA intends to do.
I never would have imagined it but this really is shaping up to be the battle of the future. Those who want to use the state to enforce “intellectual property rights” really have in mind a world without the Internet as we’ve come to understand it. It’s incredible that a small intellectual error that took hold late in the 19th century (the notion that ideas can be property) would mutate into a wealth-eating machinery that is global and fundamentally threatening to the future of civilization. But that is really what we are dealing with today.