Copyright Protection - Choose your battles close

Kevin Danaher
19th January 2012
Copyright Protection - Choose your battles

So rather fortuitously (or not, depending on your point of view) Third Thursday this month has fallen slap bang in the middle of perhaps the biggest controversy to affect the internet since it’s commercial release (1995, for any budding geek historians out there). I think we can all agree that since then it’s done nothing but grow, the clear principle being that the more people who have access to it, the more the amount of content generated constantly rises.

And so we land in the here and now, a time at which the internet is no longer populated with reems and reems of text but also video, audio, images, satellite data, pointless conversation, pretty much anything you can imagine exists online (which is both fantastic and terrible at the same time). But hold on a second, isn’t that much the same as the real world? There’s good and bad, there’s philanthropy and there’s greed, those who give and those who take. In those terms surely it’s simple to think, we should police the internet in much the same way as we do the real world, right? Catch the criminals, and allow innocent civilians to go about their day to day business and innocent companies to carry on trading.

This is the of view I want to talk about SOPA and PIPA from, as someone who works in the tech industry I feel I have a pretty decent understanding of the internet and this is how I believe it should be viewed, as another (virtual) world in it’s own right, much like the “real” one in which we live. The opinions being bandied around by politicians and corporate execs don’t seem to recognise this fundamental fact but instead they think of the internet as a system, probably due to “technology” being involved. The internet is a living thing, a representation of billions of living beings (that’s us by the way) and therefore can’t be controlled, it will refuse to be, as we would refuse.

It’s this fundamental misunderstanding of the internet that is causing these IP owners to try and wrestle control of what we’re able to see and do online and it’s the fundamental lack of knowledge in the legal establishments that is letting them get so close to achieving it. For example, if I were to go out into the local community and look around for seedy criminal types, then go and chat to those people about their various activities (for the purposes of the metaphor I achieve this without being brutally murdered or robbed) then that would be entirely my own choice. It might not be a smart thing to do, it may even mean I have an implicit knowledge of illegal activities that makes me a person of interest, but it’s my own choice to do so.

Now imagine I do the same thing but instead what I find is the community (housing estate, street, town, etc) in which those people live, has had a 50 foot wall built around it, unfortunately cutting me off from visiting the poor innocent locals as much as their shadier neighbours. This is basically what rights owners have been arguing for with the presentation of SOPA and PIPA. Rather than targeting the criminals who steal, duplicate and distribute content, they want to take down entire sections of the web so these people can’t communicate with us regular folk and spread their ill gotten gains.

The more worrying aspect of the two bills is that don’t even operate on a “suspicion” basis rather than a “proof” basis. So if a site is reported to be under suspicion it could potentially be blocked somehow.

Up until this week the creators of SOPA and PIPA were suggesting achieving this through alteration of the DNS, or Domain Name System. A fundamental foundation of the internet that allows sites to be identified by names like www.google.com, instead of purely IP addresses, like 209.85.147.103

They wanted to be able to remove (on suspicion) a domain name from the internet registry, if that site was in any way associated with illegal sharing. This would potentially give them complete rule over the web space. So you’d either play by their regulations or have your site’s domain name removed. Fortunately, due to opposition from the Whitehouse this section of the bills has been dropped but that doesn’t mean the concept is gone. Discussions in the senate recently have been around how to block sites like this anyway, even without using the DNS.

Now as an every day internet user I have to ask some serious questions:
Firstly, what exactly is considered illegal behaviour, constituting a block on that site? They certainly haven’t gone into much detail regarding this but surely it should be incredibly well defined. I can’t be arrested in the real world without a damn good explanation so why should my online presence be impounded without a clear description of the precise charges relating directly to sections of the bills I’ve contravened?

Secondly, who’s going to police this and enforce the blocks on sites? It’s obvious that the movie and music industries want the power to do this themselves but in the real world don’t we call that vigilante justice? Surely a system based on these kind of “site blocks” needs to be run by a third, independent party, who are not on the payroll of the very companies seeking to exert more control.

Lastly, how will this affect social media? We once lived in a time when the majority of online content was created and owned by news agencies, corporations and private companies. We now live in a time where most of the content is, in fact, user generated. A lot of it may be utter rubbish but the internet is now a social space, a prime are for exchanging everything be it useful or the aforementioned utter rubbish. I’ve seen plenty of people tweeting or posting on Facebook about how to access football matches or movies online, some if it legal, some of it not so much. Would these industries seriously purport to block social media platforms because they contain normal human conversation, some of which is less than law abiding. That’s like shutting down a pub because someone once sold something shady under a table there.

And that’s what I’ve been getting at throughout this whole rambling journey. The internet is a world in and of itself, trying to control it is pointless and would cost (read: waste) billions as it will grow and adapt as it always has. Besides, (outside of James Bond movies) no one has ever tried to destroy the whole world just because it was a bit flawed. The internet is fundamentally flawed… of course it is, it’s populated by us and we’re only human. The biggest thing I’ve been able to read through all the myriad of situational analyses lately in the press though is this; the institutions pushing for these changes have a complete lack of understanding of the internet in its current form. It’s evolved to a point where it belongs to billions and declaring war on the internet just to solve a piracy problem is in fact declaring war on every consumer they have. This is hardly going to endear those consumers to them and gain their support in the war on piracy. Instead declare war on the criminals themselves in such a way that the ordinary users of internet services are not even aware there is a new system in place. It’s probably difficult to achieve but it’s the only solution that won’t cause an enormous backlash, the like of which we’ve seen in recent weeks.