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Thought Police: The Threat to Internet Freedom

Beyond SOPA/PIPA, Internet censorship continues.
 
 
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On January 18, tens of millions of Web sites across the Internet shuttered or went black for 24 hours in protest of the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA), congressional bills that would have effectively put a clamp on the free and open Internet in the name of “stopping piracy.”

The blackout was the biggest online protestin the history of the internet; participants included individual blogs as well as behemoths like Google, Wikipedia, Flickr, and Tumblr. The argument was that the bills as drafted did nothing to stop piracy, and everything to concentrate the Internet into the hands of huge corporations. Opponents warned that should either bill be passed, our freedoms on the Internet would be censored, and our experience more akin to those living in oppressive countries like China and Egypt.

“Supporters claim the bills target ‘rogue’ foreign websites that encourage online infringement,” wrote Internet advocacy group Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), “but their real effect would be to slow down job-creating tech innovations at home and create devastating new tools for silencing legitimate speech all around the web.” Most of Congress appeared to support SOPA and PIPA, barring four senators—Maria Cantwell, D-Wash.; Ron Wyden, D-Oregon; Rand Paul R-Kentucky; and Jerry Moran, R-Kansas—who promised to filibuster if SOPA passed.

For now, they don’t have to. After the outpouring of protest (and President Obama’s lack of support), the bills were shelved. SOPA creator Lamar Smith, who was caught violating some of the tenets of his own bill on his Web site, withdrew the bill, telling Reuters, “I have heard from the critics and I take seriously their concerns regarding proposed legislation to address the problem of online piracy.” Participants and organizations who’d opposed the bill cheered. An email sent from Fight for the Future read, “Freedom is winning.”

But one part of EFF’s missive proved prescient: that propositions like SOPA and PIPA “silence legitimate speech. Rightsholders, ISPs, or the government could shut down sites with accusations of infringement, and without real due process.”

While the Internet was celebrating the blacklist bills' shift to the backburner, the government was doing just that. In a power move that felt like a slap on the face to all the people who stood against SOPA/PIPA, on January 19, the FBI seized the domain of super-popular filesharing site MegaUpload, accusing its purveyors of “massive worldwide online piracy of numerous types of copyrighted works.”

MegaUpload had been a target of corporate-protector organizations like the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) for what they called widespread copyright infringement on the site—despite cooperative efforts by MegaUpload to stop said copyright infringement. Organizations like MPAA and RIAA tend to put forth the artists they represent as the poor victims of piracy, yet MegaUpload appeared to have many artists’ full support.

Just a week earlier, the site released a promotional video with a jingle sung by superstars of the pop world like Kanye West, the Black Eyed Peas’ will.i.am and Kim Kardashian. (It was later revealed at the time of the site’s seizure that Alicia Keys’ husband, the highly regarded hip-hop producer Swizz Beats, was in talks to become MegaUpload’s CEO.) As DSL Reports points out, MegaUpload “had also been building a system that directly compensated artists. The crime wasn't conspiracy -- it was cutting out the RIAA/MPAA middlemen. Then flaunting it.”

The premise that Internet piracy is harming American workers and that bills like SOPA “protect the products and jobs that rightly belong to American innovators,” as Lamar Smith put it, is patently untrue. EFF has done comprehensive work to discredit the smokescreen that blacklist bills put forth about the economics of artists and piracy, most notably in this essential report. Related to the arts industry, it says:

“Despite all the sturm und drang, the movie and music companies contribute the same amount to the economy that they did before file sharing was mainstream—in both 2011 and 1995 their contribution to total GDP was 0.4%. Even better news for them: the Bureau of Labor Statistics gives a wholly positive outlook on future job prospects in the movie industry. This is evidenced by the fact that Warner Brothers just posted a record profit for the third quarter and why Viacom just gave their CEO a $50 million raise.”

The corporate concept that the Internet is a mechanism built to lose money is also completely shortsighted. Organizations like MPAA and RIAA, which represent mega-corporations such as Universal, Sony and Viacom, are not so much interested in their artists as protecting the bottom lines of their own CEOs. The fact is, these types of companies have consolidated themselves out of relevance, and finding themselves too huge and too dated to properly innovate ways to make money off the Internet, their contingency plan is to simply oppress it. But the Internet’s democratic nature means that artists can make their own incomes, with the resources of corporations no longer a necessity.

Take, for instance, popular comedian Louis CK’s recent campaign to release his latest DVD, Live at the Beacon Theatre. He sold it on his personal blog for the bargain price of $5, a cost so affordable it discouraged pirating—and he was able to earn over $1 million in less than two weeks on its sales. (He donated most of the income to charity.) And that’s just one individual; artists without Louis CK’s vast audience can find enough funding and income to make their projects without corporations through innovative, do-it-yourself sites such as Kickstarter and Etsy, and all it takes is social networking to get it going. (A documentary filmmaker friend of mine was recently able to earn $5,000 on Kickstarter for distribution of her live concert film in less than 12 hours, based entirely on word of mouth.)

These kinds of stories terrify RIAA and MPAA, because they threaten their power. It’s telling that, shortly after the MegaUpload promotional video hit YouTube, Universal Music registered a lawsuit to have it taken down, saying the appearance of several of the artists it represents violated copyright laws. Obviously, no one was holding a knife to will.i.am’s throat to force him to sing the chorus. These stars cut this commercial of their own volition. But their record labels know that if they don’t own every iota of their artists’ work, they’re irrelevant. And that kind of pain trickles up.

In a strange, dramatic twist, when police raided the New Zealand mansion of MegaUpload owner Kim Dotcom, the eccentric Dutch entrepreneur allegedly locked himself into his panic room with a sawed-off shotgun, forcing police to cut into the room. Grant Wornald, an officer with an intact sense of irony, told the New York Times, “It was definitely not as simple as knocking on the front door.”

As if it didn’t already sound like a work of dramatic cyber fiction, the day after MegaUpload was removed, the loose collective of hackers known as Anonymous proceeded to retaliate with its biggest and broadest takedown of Web sites yet. In an attack it called #OpMegaupload and #TANGODOWN, Anonymous managed to knock offline the following Web sites, among others: justice.gov, USDOJ.gov, whitehouse.gov, RIAA.org, MPAA.com, Universalmusic.com, FBI.gov, BMI.com, and copyright.gov. None stayed under for too long, but the point was made: Anonymous’ biggest retaliation ever was commensurate with the FBI’s biggest action ever.

Now an even more sweeping action, this time international, is at hand: the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) would create a WTO-style, multinational initiative to halt “counterfeiting” on the Internet. Though it’s been on the table in various forms since 2007, this year the European Parliament will decide its fate. Should it pass, international agreements could infringe on free speech under the guise of copyright law, and because it would be a global umbrella agreement, Congress might not have any control over it. And as the Internet war wages on, from mini-battles over rights of indie musicians to full-scale Internet creativity, we must see these agreements as an attack on our rights to free speech in order to secure the rights of multinational, uber-wealthy corporations.

It’s difficult not to feel cynical when so many powerful people want to curtail our rights, and are so transparent in their desperation for the bottom line. But there are a few ways to fight back, some of which are incredibly easy (and none of which necessarily entail joining Anonymous):

1. Sign petitions. As the SOPA/PIPA blackout showed, if Internet consensus is great enough, and represents enough votes and campaign dollars, politicians are willing to back down. Right now, EFF is still running its Stop SOPA Campaign, but it is also targeting movements against the unfortunately named “jailbreaking”—which is just the right and ability of people who own their own phones to unlock the operating systems—and the ability of video artists to sample other works (even under fair-trade!). These are ongoing issues. Signing up for EFF’s newsletter will keep you abreast of these issues as they surface.

2. Write your congresspeople. Again, SOPA was a fabulous example of how politicians were swayed based on people power. Fight for the Future makes that easy for you online, as does the wonderful Change.org.

3. Donate. As noted above, only four congresspeople were willing to filibuster to stop SOPA/PIPA. To help keep them on the side of Internet freedom, donate to them via Vote for the Net, and tell them why you’re ponying up.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
 
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