Selling Democracy (Slight Return)

Writing about the influence of the Internet on pro-democracy movements earlier this year, I observed:

As individual control over the flow of information rises, central control wanes. And this, obviously, is the crux of the dilemma facing businesses and governments across North Africa and throughout the world. They are belatedly coming to realise that they are fighting a many-headed hydra. As they cut off one avenue of communication, another rears its head.

But that hydra has a body, and the body is the network itself.

The US Congress’ latest attack on the integrity of the Internet demonstrates that at least some American businesses have heard this message loud and clear.

Their intent now is simply to cordon off what they consider to be the American part of the Internet, and to beat into submission any site that refuses to play by American rules. The rules, needless to say, are expressly designed to impose an economy of hoarding and scarcity on a technological landscape premised on bounty and sharing.

To what end? What do so-called content-producers stand to gain from all of this? Not much, really. Except that they can continue using the same business model that has stood them in such good stead for the last few decades.

Essentially, the SOPA legislative package doesn’t create a Great Firewall of America; it encases the giants of the media industry in amber.

The starkest evidence of the fossilising effect of this legislation was provided by a recent House Judiciary Committee hearing, which consisted of little more than a gaudy carousel of facile pronouncements:

How low was the level of debate? The hearing actually descended to statements like “the First Amendment does not protect stealing goods off trucks” (courtesy of the AFL-CIO’s Paul Almeida).

Criticisms were brushed aside with the blithe assertion that if these rules don’t fit the Internet as it is today, then it’s the Internet that should change, not the rules.

The one detractor allowed a place on the stage was Google, which objected strenuously to to the vague, often blatantly prejudicial language of the Bill.

It was up to Google alone to make the argument that SOPA’s definition of “rogue sites” is poor, that its remedies are extreme, and that plenty of legitimate sites could be targeted. One has only to think of YouTube, which even without SOPA is being sued by Viacom for $1 billion and would certainly have been hammered years ago under SOPA’s crazy language (sites can be dismantled under SOPA if they take “deliberate actions to avoid confirming a high probability of the use of the US-directed site to carry out acts” of infringement. What does that even mean? And how does it fit with existing robust safe harbors for user-uploaded content sites?)

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of this hearing was that Google, the sole opponent to the legislation allowed to present at the hearing, was castigated by most of the people present, impugned for purportedly profiting from piracy and cast as the villain in this whole affair.

Seeing one of the few growing and dynamic drivers of the information economy not only cast out of the fold but actively opposed, one can only conclude that the captains of the US media industry are perfectly content to cut their nose off to spite their face. They will burn the bridge represented by Google rather than cross it.

I see two immediate dangers if this regime is actually allowed to take the shape proposed for it:

  1. Innovation in content re-use and sharing will move outside of the US. Some will move into the shadows (kind of like offshore pirate radio in days of yore, except the ships and radios are available for the cost of a laptop). Some will move into the less governed – or governable – areas.
  2. US influence on innovation and invention will decline significantly. This legislative package will serve as a clear signal that Silicon Valley is no longer the influence it used to be. (Indeed, the Valley’s lack of standing in DC was evidenced by committee members’ contempt for Google throughout the hearing.)

The latter outcome is the more dangerous of the two. Losing influence in the direction the Internet’s development takes also means losing the uniquely American ethos of freedom and individualism.

There are numerous new media and technological players poised in the wings right now. But few of them (with the possible exception of Al Jazeera) have any moral stake in human rights or even individual expression.

Warnings that SOPA’s passage will mark the death knell of the Internet as we know it are, therefore, not exaggerations.

Like a bug in amber, the US media and content industries may be preserved for a while, but the life that they breathed into world culture – the American ethos of individual freedom – that will diminish and die.

When I talk about the ‘American ethos of individual freedom’, I’m using ‘American’ to modify ‘ethos’ not ‘individual freedom’. Tons of cultures have extremely strong traditions of freedom and individual rights. Few have that particularly American flavour of it. And it’s that particular flavour which, not coincidentally, fits so well with the Internet today.