There’s a war raging right now for control over the internet. In this war, there is no clear battlefield but there are several points of interest: Washington DC, Hollywood, internet service providers and your own living room. It’s a complex war with many players, but at its most basic level it is a push and pull between content creators and content consumers.
Content creators are the people that write books, record songs and produce movies. These people argue (rightfully) that they deserve to be compensated for their work. If there is no hope for compensation, these people have no incentive to continue producing content. When that happens, both the creators and the consumers lose.
Content consumers are the people that read these books, listen to these songs and watch these movies. We are all content consumers. We see valuable content, we open our wallets and we pay to consume that content. Or at least, that’s how it’s supposed to go.
Piracy has put a big crimp in things lately thanks to the ease of information sharing on the internet. With torrents and an endless stream of file sharing sites, it’s no longer absolutely necessary for content consumers to open their wallets and hand over their hard-earned dough to content producers. Certain content creators, namely large media companies, have reacted by lobbying congress and in an effort to gain more control over the internet.
I’m all for paying content creators for their hard work. These people provide a product that we value and it only makes sense to pay them for it. If we stop paying them, they stop producing. For that reason, I do not support internet piracy.
However, the freedom of the internet is the most important thing to consider here. It is not worth clamping down on the internet in order to stop piracy. There are a few reasons why I feel this way.
1. The internet is beautiful because it is free of interference
The internet is a medium for an exchange of information that is free from influence. No longer is it necessary to rely entirely on the words of a politician or some news media company that may or may not be biased. You can research facts on your own, read wildly different opinions and come to your own conclusions with the help of the internet. The internet also provides a means for individuals to communicate their ideas to the rest of the world. You don’t have to have a position as a newspaper columnist or talk show host to put your ideas in front of the eyes of millions. A single person with a computer can broadcast his ideas to the world free of censorship.
When a politician tells you that the employment numbers are this or that most people feel a certain way, you no longer have to take him at his word. You can research these things for yourself on the internet. It is infinitely easier to fact-check our leaders with the help of the internet.
Any effort to clamp down on the internet will have negative consequences. The more power we give to our leaders, the harder it is for us to express our ideas online. We become frogs in the pan as we give more and more control over the internet to a few people in Washington, DC.
2. The internet is good for innovation
Along the same vein, the internet has low barriers to entry. If you have a burning desire to get your thoughts out there, the only thing you need is access to a computer. You do not need lawyers, business licenses, expensive property or physical distribution channels. The more we regulate the internet, the more we stifle innovation.
The internet in its current form fosters innovation. People with good ideas can put those ideas into action. The internet is the last free frontier where individuals can get out there and act on their ideas with relatively little risk. Just a few examples include Google, Facebook, PlentyOfFish.com, Zappos.com and countless “small time” internet millionaires.
Government intervention always results in higher barriers to entry. When the government gets involved, things get unnecessarily complicated. If we give the government too much control over the internet, we will kill the greatest source of innovation on the planet.
3. The horse is already out of the barn.
Piracy exists and it’s not going anywhere. No matter how many laws you pass, you’re not going to stop people from using the internet for nefarious purposes. Any laws that are passed will only serve to limit the international flow of information that the internet provides. People that want to use the internet for theft will always find ways to do exactly that.
Look at the prohibition of alcohol and drugs. Our society tried once already to end alcohol consumption and that got nowhere. We spend billions of dollars on the War on Drugs and yet there is no end in sight. This is not an argument to just allow piracy to go unchecked, but the point is that heavy-handed approaches are ineffective. Passing laws and giving up our freedoms is not an effective way to combat certain types of undesired behavior.
As soon as we put one policing mechanism on the internet, pirates find a loophole. It’s a never-ending game of cat and mouse. The problem is that the longer this game continues, the more freedoms we lose. Pirates find one way to transmit their goods, the government clamps down. Pirates find another way to transmit their goods, the government clamps down. It never ends.
What’s with all this “Government” Talk?
If you’re wondering why I seem to have an unnatural fear of the government, it’s because the government has recently made moves to squeeze in on the internet. Several ominous pieces of legislation have been introduced over the past couple of years by our fine men and women in DC. These pieces of legislation are supposedly designed to combat piracy, but privacy advocates have expressed serious concerns.
The Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) caused a big uproar among the tech community in early 2012. The act was designed to stomp out online piracy by giving the government the authority to tell US-based companies to restrict access to entire websites.
The problem right now is that many websites that host pirated material are hosted overseas and are thus immune to US actions. Therefore, SOPA would give copyright holders the ability to demand that search engines and payment processors in the US to stop linking to and working with infringing websites.
The flaws in this bill are so numerous that I can’t even list them all here. In short, the wording was so vague that nobody knew how far the law would go. In theory, the law would give the government the ability to shut down websites for linking to a “bad” website or even for hosting user-submitted content. Websites such as YouTube could have been shut down entirely if a single person uploaded copyrighted content.
Another problem is that the bill gave the United States a wide international reach. Even if a foreign website acted according to the laws of its host country, the US would have had the ability to take action against that website. These are just two of many flaws in the SOPA bill. You can visit the Wikipedia link above to read more about it.
Fortunately, there was such widespread outrage that lawmakers decided to postpone the bill. SOPA isn’t gone yet, but at least it was stalled for a while. We have yet to see the final outcome of this piece of legislation.
The Cyber Intelligence Sharing and Protection Act (CISPA) was introduced in late 2011. The authors of this bill claimed that it was designed to help the government fight cyber security threats by making it easier for US companies to share information with the government.
Many organizations immediately expressed their outrage after reading the contents of this bill. Once again, vague language was the culprit. The bill did not make it clear how much information the government could request from companies, when that information could be shared or how that information could be used.
During House debates, the author of the bill defending it with the following appeal to emotion: “Stand for America! Support this bill!” He then went on to assure the House that there was nothing to worry about. Coming from a politician, that is not the most convincing argument I’ve ever heard.
The PROTECT IP Act, also known as Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act (PIPA), is another bill very similar to SOPA. This bill was drafted in order to give copyright holders a means of disabling access to websites that are deemed to host infringing material.
Yet again, the bill was criticized for its vague wording. If a single page on a large website (let’s say Reddit for example) is deemed to contain copyrighted content, the entire website could be removed. This would kill user-based websites such as Reddit, YouTube, Twitter and others. The concern is that a single visitor could upload something that causes the entire website to be effectively shut down.
Too Much Text – Get to the Point Already
The point is this: although most of us can agree that internet piracy is a bad thing, we cannot afford to continue to give up the freedom of the internet for the sake of ending piracy. Governments around the world have a long history of implementing freedom-suppressing laws that do more harm than good.
I do not support piracy at all, but the route we are travelling is dangerous. The vague wording of the above laws is more dangerous to the world than pirates. Information is freedom and we cannot let the government get a stranglehold on the internet. Once we go down that road, it becomes a slippery slope.
One of the problems is that big media producers are holding onto an outdated business model. Big media companies fear the loss of all the middlemen that get between artists and their audiences. The internet skips the middlemen by bringing producers directly to the people. If the big media companies would embrace the internet instead of resist change, they would be able to find new ways to monetize their content.
Change is a scary force for large corporations and governments because it changes the status quo. People get comfortable with the way things are, they learn how to game the system and they become very trigger happy when something comes along to threaten that easy cushion. But the free market has shown as time and time again that for every old business model that dies, a new and more efficient model rises in its place.
So should we just give up on piracy? Not at all. We already have measures in place to combat internet piracy. Let’s put those mechanisms to work and leave the internet alone. And if a little piracy does sneak through the cracks, well, that’s the price of freedom. It’s a price I’m willing to pay. I don’t see anyone starving yet.
==== About the Author ====
Sara Richardson is a freelance writer and regular contributor to OnlineFileStorage.com. She enjoys all things tech and is a staunch supporter of internet freedom.