Web vs. Money

Twice now, this blog has strayed onto the subject of legal bills attempting to in some way regulate the internet, based on the idea that it violates certain copyright restrictions, and everything suggests that SOPA, PIPA and ACTA will not be the last of such attempts (unless ACTA is so successful that it not only gets ratified, but also renders the internet functionally brain-dead). However, a while ago I caught myself wondering exactly why the internet gets targeted with these bills at all. There are two angles to take with regards to this problem; why there is any cause for the internet to be targeted with these bills, and why this particular problem has bills dedicated to it, rather than simply being left alone.

To begin with the second one of these- why the web? Copyright violation most definitely existed before the internet’s invention, and many a pirate business even nowadays may be run without even venturing online. All that’s required is a copy of whatever you’re pirating, some cheap software, and a lot of blank discs (or USB’s or hard drives or whatever). However, such operations tended to be necessarily small-scale in order to avoid detection, and because the market really isn’t large enough to sustain a larger-scale operation. It’s rather off-putting actually acquiring pirated stuff in real life, as it feels slightly wrong- on the web, however, it’s far easier and more relaxed. Thus, rather than a small, fairly meaningless operation, on the internet (which is, remember a throbbing network with literally billions of users) piracy is huge- exactly how big is hard to tell, but it’s a fairly safe bet that it’s bigger than a few blokes flogging ripped off DVD’s out of the boot of a car. This therefore presents a far more significant loss of potential earnings than the more traditional market, and is subsequently a bigger issue.

However, perhaps more important than the scale of the operation is that it’s actually a fairly easy one to target. Modern police will struggle to catch massive-scale drugs lords or crime barons, because the real world is one in which it’s very easy to hide, sneak, bury information and bribe. It can be impossible to find the spider at the centre of the web, and even if he can be found, harder still to pin anything on him. Online however is a different story- sites violating the law are easy to find for anyone with a web connection, and their IP address is basically put on display as a massive ‘LOOK HERE’ notice, making potential criminals easy to find and locate. The web is a collective entity, the virtual equivalent of a large and fairly open ghetto- it’s very easy to collectively target and wrap up the whole shabang. Put simply, dealing with the internet, if a bill were to get through, would be very, very easy

But… why the cause for dispute in the first place? It’s an interesting quandary, because the web doesn’t consider what it’s doing to be wrong anyway. This is partly because much of what a corporation might consider piracy online isn’t technically illegal- as long as nothing gets downloaded or made a hard copy of, streaming a video isn’t against the law. It’s the virtual equivalent of inviting your mates round to watch a film (although technically, since a lot of commercial DVD’s are ‘NOT FOR PUBLIC PERFORMANCE’, this is strictly speaking illegal too- not so online as there is no way to prove it’s not from a public performance copy). Downloading copyrighted content is illegal and is punishable by existing law, but this currently often goes unregulated because the problem is so widespread and the punishment for the crimes so small that it is simply too much bother for effective regulation. The only reason Napster got hit so hard when it was offering free downloads is because it was shifting stuff by the millions, and because it was the only one out there. One of the great benefits that bills like SOPA offered to big corporations was a quick, easy solution to crack down on copyright violators, and which didn’t entail lengthy, costly and inconvenient court proceedings.

However, downloading is a far smaller ‘problem’ than people streaming stuff from Megavideo and YouTube, which happens on a gigantic scale- think how many views the last music video you saw on YouTube had. This is what corporations are attempting to stop- the mass distribution of their content via free sharing of it online, which to them represents a potentially huge loss in income. To what extent it does cost them money, and to what extent it actually gets them more publicity is somewhat up for debate, but in the minds of corporations its enough of a problem to try and force through SOPA and PIPA.

This, really is the nub of the matter- the web and the world of business have a different definition of what constitutes violation of copyrighted content. To the internet, all the streaming and similar is simply sharing, and this is a reflection of the internet’s overarching philosophy- that everything should be free and open to everyone, without corporate influence (a principle which is astoundingly not adhered to when one thinks of the level of control exerted by Facebook and Google, but that’s another story in itself). To a corporation however, streaming on the huge scale of the web is stealing- simple as that. And it is this difference of opinion that has led to such controversy surrounding web-controlling bills.

If the next bill proposed to combat online piracy were simply one that increased the powers corporations could take the prevent illegal downloading of copyrighted content, I don’t think anyone could really complain- it’s already definitely illegal, those doing it know that they really shouldn’t and if anyone wants to grumble then they can probably stream it anyway. The contentious part of all the bills thus far have been those which attempt to restrict the streaming and sharing of such content online- and this is one battle that is not going to go away. At the moment, the law is on the side of the web. Whether that will stay the case remains to be seen…

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Another week, another attack on the web…

A couple of weeks ago, on the day of the web blackout, I put a post up here about SOPA and PIPA, the two acts planned to be passed by the US government with the potential to cripple  the web as we know it. Happily, in the space of 3 days the bill was all but dead and buried- a resounding success from the internet community.
However, the web is still a problem child to  many big corporations, and SOPA was far from the last time we’re going to see the copyright brigade try to attack it. I heard the other day of another threat looming on the horizon- this time called ACTA (Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement).
Unlike SOPA or PIPA, ACTA is an international affair, being discussed in the worldwide halls of power- some have criticized it, in Europe at least, for being discussed by non-elected figures, but that’s another story. It’s actually a lot older than SOPA or PIPA- it was first put forward in 2006, first drafted in 2010, and was published in April 2011. ACTA’s aim is, once again, to deal with copyright infringement, this time by dealing with intellectual property rights. Like SOPA and PIPA, the problems it is setting out to deal with are real ones- intellectual property theft (or stealing/using someone else’s idea without permission) is a sneaky and underhand way of muscling into someone else’s market and making a quick buck out of someone else’s work. However, there is one gigantic problem standing in the way of this kind of bill ever being a good idea- the concept of intellectual property itself.
Intellectual property is notoriously hard to define- the OED lists it as “intangible property that is the result of creativity, such as patents, copyrights, etc…” because once it reaches this legally defined stage it clearly is. But there is no real distinction of exactly where the boundary of where IP starts begins. Is it when you first have the idea for a product? Is it when you first commit something to paper? Is it only when it has been filed, patented and copyrighted- where is the boundary? As such, any scale of idea can be thought of, without really stretching a point to0 far, as intellectual property. And ACTA does not introduce its own definition of intellectual property, meaning it is ripe for exactly the same kind of legal misuse as SOPA and PIPA could have been. The sharing of any information can technically be classed as intellectual property- spreading an idea that is technically somone else’s, without paying for the privilege. Of course, it is the web that would be hit hardest by the potential of ACTA to restrict the transfer of information, as this is, basically, what keeps the web running (see my SOPA/PIPA post for more details on the subject). This restriction on what can be said and shared means ACTA has been accused, most notably by the European Parliament, of potentially restricting people’s right to free speech and freedom of expression.
Like SOPA and PIPA, ACTA also grants hugely overblown powers and capabilities to countries, companies and governments attempting to enforce it- these include massively increasing the amount of surveillance permitted to be conducted on everyday people (violating your civil rights this time- people have a fundamental right to reasonable privacy), allowing the destruction of copyright-violating goods (one of the more worrying parts of the bill is that this could include generic medicines, versions of a medicine whose patent rights have expired, granting yet more power to an already selfish pharmaceutical industry), and introducing harsh punishments for violating ACTA regulations, including fines and prison sentences- the bill does not define how much or for how long these should be, which is a sign that it has not been comprehensively thought through- the power to decide what criminal charges should be applied is given to the copyright holder.
And, again like its predecessors, ACTA puts a huge onus on websites to check that they are not harbouring any copyrighted material unintentionally- this means that Google will have to continually check its servers to ensure that it is not being used as a conduit for reading copyrighted information, and that Facebook will always have to check that none of the videos being posted on it are playing copyrighted music. And then, of course, sites like YouTube, wholly reliant as they are on user-generated content, would simply implode and collapse.
But ACTA’s problems are not just repeats of SOPA and PIPA- it brings its own set of flaws to the table. Collaboration between scientists to work on improving patented medicines? No way- the big pharma would never allow it. Critics quoting lines in books and films? No- easy source of income for book and film publishers to snap up. Basically any work on an existing idea that has any connection with someone who is likely to abuse the powers ACTA gives them would be off limits- as usual in these kind of bills, the only people who benefit are big corporations who are looking to remove this pesky internet thing that keeps getting in the way.
And the worst thing? It’s already on its way. ACTA was signed last October by a large group of countries (although it has not yet been ratified by most of them), and the only countries who have complained or protested about it are a few in Eastern Europe, most notably Poland. It has slipped under the radar for most people, because it’s all been done secretively, without coming to the public attention. ACTA is dangerously close to slaughtering the web, along with bringing a whole host of other flaws with it, and unless something happens to prevent it, the proverbial shit is going to hit the fan.

I love bandwagons…

I originally planned to devote this post to something lighthearted and utterly irrelevant, but today is the wrong day for that. Today, anything written online that is not about SOPA and PIPA is only so much pissing in the wind.
For those of you who don’t know what SOPA or PIPA are- *CLAP* *CLAP* *CLAP* WAKE UP AND LOOK AROUND THE WEB A BIT MORE! They are two bills proposed by the US government that set out, basically, to attempt to restrict and regulate the internet. SOPA stands for the Stop Online Piracy Act, and PIPA for the Protect IP Act. These, broadly speaking, classify websites into ‘foreign’ and ‘domestic’ (relative to the US) , and then grants the government, via the attorney-general, the power to censor any site that is found guilty of violating or, more importantly, facilitating the violation of, copyright restrictions as per US law. The idea is to prevent online piracy, such as the streaming of  films that are under copyright.
In theory, nice idea. In practice- an appallingly worded document that, if implemented, has the potential to turn the internet insipid.
Problem One- the level of censorship. When the power is given to censor a website, this MEANS censor. This means search engines have a duty to scrub it,  its financers can no longer back it, domain hosters have to give it up, everything. Seems like a good idea to restrict piracy, but in fact it won’t work. The US government is in fact funding projects enabling people living in repressive political regimes to circumvent these blocks, and by just typing in the IP address of what you’re looking for you will still get to it. What it actually does is make it nigh-on impossible for any site found guilty of violating the act to publicize themselves, which neatly leads me on to…
Problem Two- what is considered a crime is far too vague. “Facilitating the activities [of copyright infringement or counterfeit products ]” can apply to a huge range of subjects, even as simply as telling somebody how something is done. This basically means any site relying on user-generated content can be targeted and the law can be very easily abused by any legal smartarse. This could lead to hundreds of sites becoming censored for activities almost totally unrelated to copyright infringement- the proposal itself even says it is not just targeting sites “dedicated to theft”. The most potentially destructive thing about this however, is…
Problem 3- a person can be targeted simply for sharing a link to a site. This massively restricts the potential for small websites to grow- how would webcomics ever spread if the internet couldn’t share them, for example? The process of sharing things, telling your friends, spreading the word, is how any business or trend grows, and is a wonderful thing. It happens in all walks of life, so why should it be banned on the internet? Why are you not entitled to the same rights to do this online as in the real world? Why is there…
Problem 4- the bill restricts your right to free speech online. Because of the level of censorship allowed by the bill, once a site has been blocked, all future AND PAST references to it will be blacked out entirely- this will not just mean you can’t click on a link in an old blog post, it will mean you won’t even be able to read that blog post. One of the great things about the internet is its potential as a tool for discussion, allowing people who may never meet to talk about what they want, whenever they want- introducing these restrictions could kill that off to a surprising extent. Plus, of course, the right to free speech is a fundamental human right, included in the UN declaration of human rights as something that shouldn’t be inhibited. This is not as serious as the political restrictions imposed in some countries, but because of the potential for abuse of the law it could give the US government the power to silence anyone talking about something they deem as wrong- one could argue a discussion advocating a socialist state, a perfectly valid view to hold, could be banned for advocating state ownership rather than personal ownership and so violating copyright law- a ridiculous argument, but one that could be applied, especially knowing the US’s traditional stance on left-wing politics. Similarly targeted could be anyone making spoof videos or making references to popular culture, leading to…
Problem 5- this bill could render hundreds of the internet’s favourite sites insipid. YouTube, Facebook, Reddit and more could all just become mires of indifference who can’t say anything that would offend the government for fear of being blocked. Thousands upon thousands of pages could become replaced with big banners stating that they have been blocked by the government, ruining the internet’s brilliant potential as a tool for sharing information across the world. And speaking of across the world…
Problem 6- these bills can block almost ANY major site, regardless of origin. The bill has tried to restrict itself to only policing the US by defining sites as ‘foreign’ or domestic’, but the definition of these two categories is so broad, vague and draconian that any site of any size , which will almost certainly have US connections, could be attacked under this law, while all-american sites are just plain old screwed over. This, plus the universal nature of the web, means the US will be enforcing its laws ON OTHER COUNTRIES AS WELL AS ITSELF, which is a violation of democracy if ever I saw one- much of the UN is opposed to these bills for that reason.
In short, therefore SOPA and PIPA are draconian, wrong and should be fought tooth and nail by every internet-lover the world over. As you may have picked up from earlier, I’m British, so you might not think that this really affects me- but much of the content I love on the web is American, and I want to protect it. Across the web today, thousands of sites are blacking out or making protests against the repression of the internet, and there are many links to online petitions or email addresses of senators to try and get this bill opposed. Please, if you’re reading this, do your bit for the web. Oppose SOPA and PIPA. Free the internet.