Friday, January 20, 2012

Where do we go after the Blackouts?

On January 18, 2012 America saw something that has never happened before. In response to proposed legislation that would give the government an easy route to shutting down websites that they felt were distributing copy written material without permission, without trial, many major websites went dark in protest and offered their users easy forms to submit a letter of protest to their representatives in congress. The legislation they were protesting would have a devastating effect on the internet, where the some of the largest websites survive on user submitted content that could easily be copyrighted and uploaded by someone without the permission of the copyright holder.

The immediate response to the blackout and deluge of protest letters was for several congresspeople to change their stance on the two proposed bills. It now looks that these two bills will not have the support to be passed, and the internet will continue to exist in much the same form that it had before the bills were suggested.

I am of the opinion that while the blackout protest was successful, this time around, it cannot be considered to be a strategy for maintaining the freedom of the internet, as the blackout feeds heavily upon the goodwill capital of the websites that participated. In short, the internet has shown its hand and now stands in a strategically weaker position because of it. While the internet has defended itself from the current attack on its freedoms, it must create a strategy that reinforces rather than consumes goodwill.

Let us first focus on what the success of the SOPA/PIPA blackout shows about the environment and the players in this conflict. First, it demonstrates the ability of these web sites that make up “new media” to quickly organize and educate a huge mass of people and set, at least in the short term, the nature of the dialogue. The LA Times reports that Google claims 4.5 million people signed the petition against SOPA/PIPA. ( Most of these people hadn’t even heard of SOPA or PIPA until the blackout. This goes to demonstrate the number of people who use these products daily and how much these websites matter to the people that were willing to take the time to read about the proposed legislature and take the time to fill out the form to protest. While many people might not feel that the short time that it takes for this action is much to talk about but it really is. When you consider the rational ignorance that members of the web community must operate under to help them process the amazingly vast amount of information that they are faced on by a second by second basis anything that can motivate them to act in unison is something to take note of. In fact it is the need for selecting and filtering information to suit the needs of the user that that these websites have so many users. However, when the website took the time to tell its users directly and without distraction what concerned the web sites operators and why it was important to both parties, they were able to send a clear message that translated into action. It was a direct reversal of the flow of action that had made these websites great but because of the goodwill that the websites had created they were able to draw upon their users. The problem, as stated before, is that this strategy cannot be continuously replicated as it consumes that goodwill and will therefore generate a diminishing return each time it is used.

You might be asking yourself, why does it need to be duplicated since support for these bills have been severely damaged? The answer is that the “old media” of film, TV, and the music industry, who were the lobbying support behind the bill, are going to continue to feel pressure from “new media” and piracy.  They have money and political connections that they will use to their advantage to draft new legislature to help them compete in a social media age. This is a much easier way for them to protect their market share than other options due to the calcifying nature that corporate culture causes. It is also a result of the group think that fills any industry, and the “old media’s” thought is that their problems stem from piracy of their content. They go on to claim outrageous losses due to piracy ( which even the GAO agrees is exaggerated. What the truth of the matter is, is that “old media” is falling behind in the service they provide, compared to what it easily done. They fail to see the appeal of pirated content to the consumer, feeling that it is about getting something for free, when it is much more about the delivery stream. To illustrate this idea just look at the success of Netflix streaming content and the effect that it is having on the piracy community. ( However as long as “old media” feels they can gain ground through the use of the government they will continue, and they know that they have a strong relationship. As an example, not less than 24 hours after the blackout the government shut down due to piracy concerns, this is a strong message that the government is going after “new media” and competing distribution networks which they deem can or are being used for piracy.

The people in charge of creating the legislature understand that they do not have the resources to police individual submissions for websites; this is why copyright enforcement has always been in the hands of the copyright holder, who was expected to bring infringers to civil court to settle damages. However they do not have the resources to police the web either, which is why groups such as the MPAA and RIAA have used excessive damages on poster child type cases, so that they can scare people from participating in piracy. This has been largely ineffective as most pirates have determined that they are unlikely to ever be caught and charged. This is why they changed tactics with SOPA/PIPA to make the website operator liable for content uploaded or linked to from their site. They targets site operator with what amounted to loss of business should they be caught allowing copy write infringement.  The back lash from the sites users showed that they are not happy with the idea they could lose their tools for filtering information because of other users actions. So the logical next step would be to create a method where site operators would be given the needed tools to track users and while subject to fines for failing to police their own sites be given immunity if they turn in the contributor. This would satisfy both the “old media” and the website operators would stand much less risk of loss offset by a higher operating cost.

Why is this something to be stopped? The internet culture as it currently stands is based on making changes to existing content to create new content, creating a culture that is evolving and seeking to fill in niches that “old media” neglects due to their delivery structure and the cost associated with targeting a small niche. This can be seen in such internet cultural entertainment as the meme, in musical and video mashups, and especially in the viral spread of media, where new content can be relinked, embedded and reposted so that an artist can quickly and for almost no cost be exposed to millions of consumers. These are all things that stand opposed to the “old media” who has made their fortunes being the gate keepers of entertainment, selecting winners and losers to the overall loss of potential cultural development. As with any development, cultural development happens at the margins of society as first adopters search and discover new things and then bring others to it. If the “old media” remains the gatekeepers of our entertainment and knowledge they determine the dialogue we have in our culture, which will restrict access to the margin, to the bleeding edge of cultural development. It will have a chilling effect as the only real access people will have is what is provided by the establishment, and will result in a culture that does not grow organically but in spurts and with great opportunity losses.

We need a new strategy for protecting our cultural development. The first strategic step is almost always to gain resources from which to work form. I suggest that to accomplish this we need to continue to educate people, not only of the risks that anti-piracy legislature creates for the development of our cultural artifacts, but also of methods that can be used to circumvent government actions, such as using ip addresses to access sites in case of DNS blocking. This will make it all the harder for legislation to be effective and therefore reduces the likely hood that it is used in the first place. The second strategy that should be adopted is a change in our voting patterns to reflect to political candidates that internet censorship is a voting issue for us. To make this effective we need to communicate to candidates, write letters, join campaign staffs, and make our voice heard. We cannot afford to dilute our message though, so we are faced with making compromises on other major issues. Much like the pro-life/pro-choice dialogue has gone we need to make it clear to candidates that this is the topic that decides who we vote for. We must make the candidates answer questions about this and hold them to their position, and we cannot afford to send a mixed message, if a politician goes against our position we must pull our support from them based on this issue and this issue alone, otherwise they learn that they can throw us under the bus on this issue to gain campaign financing from the “old media.” It must be clear that it is either our votes or their money we cannot let the politian have it both ways otherwise they will go for the money and use a fraction to buy us on other issues. The final step of our strategy is to tie our goal to a philosophy that can be sold to the wide public. This is what is done with the pro-choice movement as they have tied the right for abortion to the woman’s self-ownership a major plank of the women’s right movement. It is what has been done to improve the position of the GLBT community in their fight for the right to marry who they want to. Once again it is ties to the idea of self-ownership and being able to make decisions for oneself. We need to tie our cause, the right to communicate ideas the way we choose, to this same idea of self-ownership.

In conclusion, while we have seen a great spectacle in the SOPA/PIPA blackout, and it has signaled a popular sentiment that we want to keep the internet free to continue to evolve organically and not according to the plans of the self-appointed gate keepers of content, we accept a strategy that is self-reinforcing that we can continue to defend the freedom of the internet. To do this we must make the freedom that the internet has the one voting issue that we cannot compromise on, otherwise the politicians will continue to be purchased to chip away at the decentralized nature of the internet while we are given lip service, which is what will happen if our votes can be purchased with anything else than the protection of our freedom that we experience on the internet.

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