The American and the global boom in Internet usage is a result of the current architecture of the Internet. The freedom offered has or will allow for online education, no-advert, no N-Sync radio, and this kind of site, which would never have gotten started under a more repressive Internet architecture. All of these (with the exception of Cryptome) draw users onto the Internet.
In it's current form, the Internet can educate people, can expand their horizons, and help them make them more informed purchasing choices. Of course, it can't make them do this, which is a pity - more on that later.
As pointed out in this article by Bruce Sterling, the world of old-style business has had some trouble adapting to the Internet. This, to borrow an ESR-ism, is because they don't get it. However, the business most concerned with information today (our friends in the content industry) have enough money and influence to change the Internet's architecture to suit them. And they intend to, and have done for quite a while, as this comment by a Sony VP demonstrated, and as the new legislation should convince you.
The Golden Rule
The big content providers have the money, and are more interested in controlling information than ensuring that it can be effortlessly propagated far and wide:
Like it or not, the ability to trade their copyrighted material is a direct consequence of an Internet that allows absolute freedom of information, regardless of the nature of that information. Routers don't block child porn when they see it5.
The core principle of copyright used to be about rewarding authors for their work, and ensuring that they have incentives to produce more work. However, copyright is becoming centered on the control of duplication of information, which, from the distributors point of view, should be absolute. But when information can be duplicated as easily as CTRL-C, CTRL-V, and the entire Internet makes copying trivial as a consequence of intrinsic design choices, what happens?
Well, copyright law has become weaker to reflect reality. The greater feedback and the two-way nature of the Internet have made authors more in touch with their audience, to the point where the adulation and gifts good authors receive have become more important than making piles of money. After all, you can't quantify respect and admiration, right? Multi-million dollar Hollywood films just aren't feasible as a business model anymore, and the studios are going to have to accept that.
There is a right answer, and it's a wrong one. The reality is that copyright law becomes stronger, and the content industry encourages hopelessly doomed software and hardware protection mechanisms. In case you think this is hyperbole: The most secure cryptoprocessor available, as used by cash-machines, VISA, and e-commerce sites all over the place6, does not withstand concerted attack, given basic permissions, 20 minutes access, and $1000. The cryptoprocessor itself probably costs as much as a high-end PC, minimum.
At the same time legislators are lobbied for stronger protection of weaker rights and idiotic access control systems, resulting in laws that afford greater protection to DVD scrambling algorithms than to H-bomb instructions1 or Top Secret reports from the Pentagon. Something is seriously wrong.
Contributions from the content industry to the lawmakers have increased sizably over the past few years, because they are asking for so much more. Copyright is currently an intricate web of compromises between composers and broadcasters, filmmakers and theatre-owners, etcetera. The general public hasn't had a say in the formulation of copyright law for almost as long as it has existed in the US Code2. And now copyright has become a tool with which to force the customer into the passive role of a consumer. A consumer, of course, who will be treated as a potential criminal.
Unfortunately, these are the interests shaping the future of the Internet. These are the people who have the ear of Congress.
But wait! People will never do this.
But wait! They already do.
Freedom of expression is something that has (to varying extents) been embodied in western cultures for a while now. This is not the case in other parts of the world, for example China and Saudi Arabia. Companies that flourished because of the Internet are happy to change the architecture of their customers' networks to allow for greater control and surveillance, in the name of profit margins, regardless of the human rights implications.
By implication, Cisco and Nortel are, I am sure, quite happy to embed DRM into their routers and other hardware if it becomes necessary. Michael Eisner (CEO of Disney) alluded to favourable negotiations with Cisco at this congressional hearing. The Great Firewall of China is acting as a dry run for what is going to be done to our own networks, and then some.
Why should you care if you're not in the US? This very cool graph shows how the US is still a central component of the Internet's topology. To start with, it sits between Asia and Europe. This means that what happens in the USA affects everybody, and not just because we've all signed the same treaties, and will therefore eventually attempt to pass similar legislation.
Why nothing will stop this from happening.
The Internet, at the last estimate, had roughly 220.4 million English-speaking users, with about 505 million users in total.
Of that fantastically huge number, how many of them are living in the USA and are EFF members? How many live in the UK and are members of the CDR? The answer, of course, is hardly any. Regardless of nationality, why don't people care about what's happening?
We don't know for sure, because no one has ever asked them. I suspect apathy and cynicism, because I am guilty of them myself.
What DO the masses of the Internet care about? What is universal enough that people know, care, and tell each other about? Three things:
- Free music, and free movies. Also the most popular Google searches.
- Jokes: FW: Fwd: FW: FW: FW: A man walks in to a bar...
- IMPORTANT! New virus! Do not open!
You get the idea.
In no way am I suggesting people get busy writing chain-emails about the SSSCA. But there is a problem of apathy and cynicism. This isn't just me flinging insults; you can hear this from Lawrence Lessig (answers 2, 3, 4, 11, and 14) or Hemos of Slashdot (quoted via Johnny3).
Mobilizing any sizable percentage of the Internet has yet to be achieved, even for hot-button issues such as gun control, abortion, woman's rights, etcetera. Vietnam-war journalism has yet to find an Internet equivalent, and it is unlikely to.
When you buy a newspaper, you see the headlines, and you'll see any pictures printed on it. When you watch the news, a click is required on your part to turn away from pictures of dead soldiers. But the chances are you'll be riveted. The principle is the same when you listen to the radio.
However, I check k5 daily, and I only just read the female circumcision story, which is weeks old, because I was thinking ''eeew'', and I was busy elsewhere. No push content here folks. Attempts at push content (popups being the most prevalent example) have been met with Junkbuster or Proxomitron, and good thing too, because in it's current form, push content sucks, and does more harm than good.
The mainstream media won't help here. Firstly, these powerful corporations own them, and secondly, Internet users have no voice in mainstream media, and are more prodded and subject to analysis, or mocked, than listened to.
Large, powerful corporations across the world have vested interests in changing the architecture of the Internet in a fundamental manner so as to increase their profits, protect their business models and/or control their ''consumers''. Companies such as Cisco have already carried out analogous tasks for customers far more ethically bankrupt than the content industry, and a repeat performance on home ground is perfectly feasible.
The users of the Internet in its current form are, like the rest of society, apathetic and cynical. Or maybe I'm just too cynical. They don't know, and they don't care. If they do know, it's old news.
Users of the Internet want their music and their movies, and they don't care where it comes from. Popular downloads should convince you of that. So maybe they really don't care about this threat to the architecture of the Internet. Maybe laws like the SSSCA (now CBDTPA, the article went up on Slashdot as I write this) will actually help. Sure, the small minority of us4 will be disadvantaged, or imprisoned (raise your hand if you're willing to do hard time in political protest, anyone?), but consumers will get their movies and their music.
Maybe Lessig is right when he says that we (meaning everyone) will probably end up with the Internet we deserve.
1: The case is ''United States v. Progressive (1979)''. A magazine name of ''The Progressive'' was to publish assembly instructions for a hydrogen bomb. A preliminary injunction in a district court prevented the publication until it was published in through alternate channels. The injunction was then lifted, unlike in MPAA v. 2600, where the injunction was upheld despite numerous copies of DeCSS floating around.
2: See Chapter 3 of ''Digital Copyright'', Jessica Litman, 1-57392-889-5.
3: Whose book rocks.
4: For the purposes of discussion, ''us'' refers to people who will be actively disadvantaged by laws such as these. I know there is no ''geek'' collective.
5: Blocking in Pennsylvania is done with human intervention, which is, from the perspective of the user, an ''act of god'', i.e. action by someone who controls the ''laws of nature'' for that network segment.
6: See Section 14.3 of ''Security Engineering'', Ross Anderson, 0-471-38922-6.
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