INDENTURING THE INTERNET

by James D. Wolf, Jr on June 10, 2012

On April 26, 2012, the Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) received what’s been characterized by opponents as a sudden push-through vote in the United States House of Representatives.

This made CISPA, an update of the National Security Act of 1947, the latest focus for those advocating an Internet of free-flowing content, uncensored by government and not blocked by corporate interests that are consolidating high-speed Internet access into fewer and fewer companies. However, CISPA’s possible passage — which still needs a Senate vote and which President Barack Obama has promised to veto — isn’t the only thing they need to be concerned about.

A private anti-piracy agreement between the Center for Copyright Information (representing the Motion Picture Association of America and the Recording Industry Association of America) and major Internet service providers like Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon, and Time Warner Cable was set for implementation on July 12, allowing both groups to squelch the bandwidth of those suspected of illegal activities, and although it’s on hold while details get tweaked, its implementation is inevitable.

Meanwhile, the United States Senate plans to debate its own version of CISPA, the Cybersecurity Act of 2012 (CSA), in June. Like CISPA, the CSA contains the frightening phrase “notwithstanding any provision of law” when dealing with undefined “cyber threat indicators,” and the American Civil Liberties Union appears more concerned about its passage than CISPA’s.

These kinds of legislation and corporate policies/agreements — alleged attempts to protect property rights while infringing on human beings’ rights — will keep coming, and some will eventually stick. Those interested in electronic freedom need to do two things: Stop reacting to bills instead of promoting legislation that protects rights, and start realizing that this isn’t just about freedom of speech. It’s about economic power.

Just after their previous fight for Internet freedom (when sites such as Google and Wikipedia voluntarily went blank on Jan. 18, 2012, to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act [SOPA] and the Protect IP Act [PIPA]), the United States Department of Justice and the FBI shut down a file-sharing site, Megaupload, on Jan. 19, arresting and charging some of its executives in New Zealand.

Some bloggers, journalists, and Facebook/Twitter posters said the government intended that as a message, and diatribes went across the Internet about how the arrests and shutdown proved the irrelevance of SOPA and PIPA. Current laws, they argued, are sufficient to protect copyrights.

While that’s true, protestors didn’t consider other reasons why corporations would want the two bills passed. Under existing laws, the onus is on the copyrighted property owner to be vigilant and go through the legal channels. That requires time and money, and while corporations say they pass costs on to the consumer, it’s a cost that doesn’t look good on reports to stockholders.

SOPA and PIPA would’ve put the responsibility for copyright infringements on the owners of sites where material might get posted, holding the sites and not the copyright infringer responsible. This is the equivalent of requiring you to build a giant fence to block your neighbor’s picture window because passersby can see him watching porn on his big screen television over your property. But economic impact is more than just policing costs.

Although it’s an accepted clich√© that the United States has become a service-related economy instead of a manufacturing economy, the truth is that we’re an information economy. Information is knowledge and knowledge is power, especially economic power.

Consider:

  • International students added more than $21 billion to the United States economy in 2010, and the Institute of International Education reports that foreign student enrollment has grown 32% over the past decade, even with post-9/11 restrictions.
  • ¬†For the United States movie industry in 2011, “international grosses accounted for 69 percent of overall sales, compared with 66 percent in 2010 and 64 percent in 2009.”
  • Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and most of the major software and Internet forces are US-based companies.

The world wants what the United States knows or produces. Knowledge and skills have always been important economic factors, but were not considered as much a measure of wealth as land ownership or investments until the end of the last century. Now the general public understands the phrases “intellectual property,” “trade secrets,” and “corporate spying.”

The Internet and smartphones are simply the latest technology in the lineage of the printing press, newspapers, telegraphs, telephones, radios, television, and open admissions at universities, all of which have made knowledge more accessible. But the more widespread that learning and knowledge get and the easier they are to access, the more dangerous they become to those who could profit by making them harder to come by. If everyone knew how to write their own court briefs, lawyers would make less money.

Prior to the ability to download music, anyone wanting to sell recordings still had to use the major labels to distribute them, even if they had their own label. Controlling the channels through which information flows is controlling who makes the profits, but it’s also controlling the culture.

When AM radio stations in the early rock era switched to Top 40 programming and program directors, it meant the disc jockeys no longer chose the records, and it created uniformity among stations across the country that never would have allowed the original rock records to be heard. This allows corporations to focus on products like Justin Bieber or Britney Spears, which they can market and merchandise for large profits rather than taking guesses on whether something will be the next Dark Side of the Moon, which stayed on the charts from 1973 to 1988.

The Internet can eliminate corporations as middle men, allowing entertainment, news, and information to pass without allowing them their cut.

MySpace and YouTube have made or helped to make performers, bloggers, and their views omnipresent, and sites like Deviantart, b3ta, and Illustration Friday allow artists to reach clients. Sites like Megaupload allow anyone who wants to reach an audience to do so easily, and individual websites allow fans to know about appearances, buy works, and purchase merchandise.

The band Wilco is an example of how well this works. Having been dismissed by their label, Reprise/Warner, the band made downloads of their album Yankee Hotel Foxtrot available on their website for free. It became their biggest selling album to date once they got another label.

The Internet not only powerfully shapes culture and economics, but also can shape politics in ways that media, concerned about offending their customers, cannot. The ability to control and communicate information is the ability to control how people think about things. This is why it’s been difficult for those who want to push bills through to do so. The Internet allows people to provide information to those who would protest, and it allows people to research issues on their own, rejecting official views and, possibly, the Internet proponents’ view.

Unfortunately, most in the US Congress are the parents and grandparents of the generations that came of age with computers, and many do not understand them or the Internet. They depend on lobbyists, and this is why during debate about the Communications, Consumer’s Choice, and Broadband Deployment Act of 2006, the late Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) called the Internet a “series of tubes” that could be clogged with information and confused “Internet” and “e-mail.”

The best way to get Congressional concern about an Internet bill is to say it has to do with national security or illegal activities, especially pirating and child pornography. CISPA began as an update of The National Security Act of 1947 (which organized the United States military into its present form). The bill initially included intellectual property theft as a possible cause for sharing Web traffic information with the government, though it was removed in subsequent drafts.

Piracy is, of course, illegal, and although there are creators who support Creative Commons and copyrights that allow people to share work, very few support allowing others to make money off their work. What they fear, though, is that the Internet will become restricted in its ability to allow them to get their work known.

Again, this will take action instead of reaction, and not just legally. Besides working with legislation, supporters of a free Internet need to stop letting corporations and the media define terms, such as using “the Wild West” as a metaphor. That phrase gives validation to people doing things not accepted in non-electronic life — movie and music piracy, child pornography, and the posting of revealing photos by short-tempered former lovers — as much as to peoples’ fears.

A more accurate analogy is the ancient Greek forum, where any citizen can have their say, or Chicago’s Bughouse Square at Clark and Walton Streets, where in the words of Mike Royko, “You just got up on a box in Bughouse Square and yelled about it. Somebody would pay attention. Maybe they’d laugh, but they’d be there.” (Mike Royko, For the Love of Mike: More of the Best of Mike Royko, [Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001], 144.)

It’s time for the Internet to grow up, especially its users and programmers, who still like to style themselves as whiz kids more knowledgeable than their elders. When you’ve passed your mid-30s, this is no longer thumbing your nose at society so much as refusing to relinquish your own stunted adolescence.

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James D. Wolf Jr. is a correspondent for The Post-Tribune in Northwest Indiana.

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