The Defensive Internet
he Internet has a persecution complex. And why shouldn’t it? With each session of congress arrive new laws aiming to “protect” rights holders at all costs. With each year organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) seem ever closer to lining file-sharers up next to terrorists and drug users as good, old-fashioned American Strawmen. And who does the Internet have to trust to protect it from over-reaching legislation and fiscally-polyamorous lobbyists? With a few well informed, hard working and impossibly patient exceptions like congresswoman Zoe Lofgren, the recent Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) hearings did not-much-at-all to inspire in anyone the government’s ability to protect or manage one of our countries most important resources. Insert “series of tubes” joke here, I think.
Maybe it’s only fitting the Internet be a little sensitive. It does seem to be working out well. The Internet didn’t handily defeat SOPA, but the outpouring of anti-SOPA rhetoric was nigh suffocating. The drawn-together-ness of so many communities was downright inspiring. All the calls to action, all the blackouts, all the the alarm was successful. The Internet precipitated a meaningful change. But I think there is a little bit of an un-told story about how this all came about.
“Us vs. Them”
It has taken a number of years, an impossible number of lawsuits since The RIAA vs. Napster in 1999 and countless threats of regulation, but there has developed an “Us vs Them” sense on the Internet, its users assuming a role in opposition to lawmakers, law enforcement, rights holders, and now even government. There is this feeling that while law makers should be setting their sights elsewhere, they are instead focused on “illegal activity" involving the Internet. The Internet feels as though someone is constantly out to get it, and it’s getting bad. It’s bad enough that some users on Reddit have defended child pornography as free speech.
Obsessed as the Internet is with its own persecution, it is going to plumb the legal depths for the most outrageous hypocrisies. And out of those depths, we see image macros like this:
I will save us all the lengthy discussion wherein we reveal that filesharing has an extremely unclear effect on the creative economy hardly comparable with theft and therefore should warrant little more than a slap on the wrist if any punitive measure--let alone jail time. What I am interested in is from where we get the facts reported in image macros like this, and how in the Internet’s constant state of worry and mad dash to construct an argument alternate to its supposed oppressors, it might end up doing more harm than good.
While we can all agree that SOPA was bad, more than deserving of the attention it received, I wonder how many of us know how bad it really was. How many of us actually read it? I didn’t. That doesn’t necessarily prevent me from understanding this kind of legislation is threatening not only to my Internet lifestyle but also to the existence of important, collaborative, community building services (of which KYM is not the least). What it might prevent, though, is the progression of an intelligent conversation. Kim Dotcom has not been sentenced to 50 years of anything (yet) but reports claiming such have been popping up the last month, with soon-to-follow edits apologizing for the misinformation. That means all the energy spent on this conversation is essentially a waste. And that is a shame.
Ars Technica recently ran a really great piece about the Internet representing the possible effects of Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) inaccurately, and in it they indicate the Internet might be stuck in the past: rallying against a version of the bill which is no longer up for consideration. Ironic that the Internet, of all places, would be acting on less-than-exactly-current information. And unfortunate that it might cry legislative wolf.
Know Your Facts
It has been made clear – first comically, now significantly less so – that Washington has little understanding of how the Internet works. Lawmakers are just that, not programmers, not Redditors. But as is so often the game with politics, they are convincing where they are not knowledgeable. The U.S. Department of Justice and rights holding organizations hand the unilaterally pro-copyright cause characters like Kim Dotcom on a silver platter (why oh why Kim did not live in a country without a US extradition treaty we may never know).
MegaUpload is a clear example of how “illegal” websites make millions of dollars in profit while unemployment continues to be a problem. Kim is an easily detestable figurehead, with his $50,000 cars sporting license plates reading “Mafia,” “God” and “Hacker.” Where emotions make Kim Dotcom the effigy of file-sharers everywhere, reason has a lot of heavy lifting to do.
The Internet owes it to itself to possess extremely high standards for this calibre of conversation, and more precisely, to understand Washington better than Washington understands the Internet. Unlike rights holding organizations, who appear to make Unfair Dealings their public business, and the government, who seems simply to not be in possession of all the facts, the Internet-at-large is in a position to report on the real state of the media ecosystem. The Europeans’ street protests against the ACTA on February 11th was an amazing thing to behold, but if we want to stay ahead in the game, we can’t adopt the same implement-wielding bandwagon mentality which in turn fuels the government’s attempts at overregulation. The low orbit ion cannon has its uses. Should protest really be one of them?
If there is one thing the Internet does well, it is disseminating information. In situations regarding its future, I see no reason that information shouldn’t be correct if not humorous. How does it work if we take some of our best-known and most-loved formats and use them as conveyors for real, helpful information? Or for frames around important questions about the American culture industry?
This means reading the legislation, this means actually knowing whats going on and why it is wrong.
It means knowing how and why SOPA or ACTA is bad, but also knowing that shouting "Don’t Break The Internet” will never be as engaging as sensational headlines like “Look at Kim Dotcom’s four Benz’s” or “JOBS JOBS JOBS! THEFT!” It means understanding the situation and showing force by accurately describing the inanity of the reality, not by firing the harpoons. Make all the macros, yes, but also include all the facts.
The Internet is especially positioned to make a case for the loosening of the copyright industries--and the abandonment of worldwide, Paid-For-By-Lobbyists Law-Making™--in a real way. The quality of information is high, the truths easy to relate to and the counter-arguments severely lacking.
We are in possession of the facts. We should use them.
Michael Rugnetta is a composer, programmer and performer living in Brooklyn, NY (with what feels like the rest of the creative industry) and works as a composer for performance /video. He also studies the vast fields of Internet memes and culture in his role as the alumni scientist of Know Your Meme.