November 04, 2009

The Internet as You Know It Will Cease to Exist

Hey, relax. It's not going to be the end of the world -- but as my headline says, in time it may be the end of the internet as you know it.

Cory Doctorow:
The internet chapter of the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement, a secret copyright treaty whose text Obama's administration refused to disclose due to "national security" concerns, has leaked. It's bad. It says:

* That ISPs have to proactively police copyright on user-contributed material. This means that it will be impossible to run a service like Flickr or YouTube or Blogger, since hiring enough lawyers to ensure that the mountain of material uploaded every second isn't infringing will exceed any hope of profitability.

* That ISPs have to cut off the Internet access of accused copyright infringers or face liability. This means that your entire family could be denied to the internet -- and hence to civic participation, health information, education, communications, and their means of earning a living -- if one member is accused of copyright infringement, without access to a trial or counsel.
Doctorow has pulled out two additional provisions, which are similarly bad. (On the first point above, I'm not at all sure that Doctorow's argument regarding Flickr, YouTube and Blogger necessarily follows from the preceding sentence, although I certainly understand his reasoning. In any case, the provision is still remarkably bad. It's also extremely vague: what precisely does "proactively police" mean and require? Perhaps it's spelled out in the full document. But unquestionably very bad.)

Over the last several years, we've all heard claims like the following very often. I state it in general terms, to try to capture its various iterations. But you're all familiar with how it goes in essence: "The truly great thing about the internet is that it means tyranny will never succeed the way it could in the past. Almost everyone will have access to information about everything! The people are empowered as never before. Despotic, authoritarian government is therefore consigned to the dust bin of history." Et cetera, and so on, and you can even put whipped cream and a dozen cherries on top of that.

Only a cursory review of history would indicate that claims of this kind are offered with deadening regularity. Every new invention will change things forever! Each significant development means that life will never again be the same! In the area of recent technology alone (recent in historic terms, if not in the spans of time most people seem capable of retaining, which reach approximately three months max), Life and The Whole Universe were permanently altered, like, forever, man, 'cuz of the radio, then teevee, then cable teevee, then VCRs, then digital, then blahblahblabbityblah ... and then ... TA DA! THE INTERNETZ!

Please. Psychology, human nature and, more particularly, the dynamics of power and social organization alter only over very, very long periods of time. In certain respects, they don't change at all. A few of us might hope they would change and that entirely new ways of interrelating and organization would be found (see, "Contemplating a Different World"), but that's a very long-term project. I mean, long-term.

And to circle back to this particular example, if you understood the possibilities that might be realized by the internet, do you seriously think those people and interests possessing the most power and wealth did not? Yes, we're all special and unique and all that keen stuff, but the ruling class is people, too (revolting thought, I understand, but also true). And the ruling class is not stupid. It is certainly not stupid about this kind of thing. So our betters will do everything in their power to harness and redirect every advance to their own purposes. Again, consult history. This is always the pattern.

Some of the comments to Doctorow's post are intriguing. Here's one that I thought cleverly captured part of the forces operating here:
Look folks, if this copyright treaty means protecting Mickey Mouse from unauthorized reproductions, then it's a small price to pay to forever risk losing access to civic participation, health information, education, registration and renewal of government documents, global communication, access to government, weather and traffic, emergency service information, freedom of speech and assembly....
Obeisance to the Mickster is an eternal value. I mean, dude, eternal.

But here's the good news. Just as claims that the invention of the globbekgortz will catapult us all into the gabillionth dimension are overblown, so too predictions that this trade agreement, as abominable as it appears to be, will cause all the universes to self-destruct within the next few seconds go just a tad too far. Just a tad, you know? Here's a comment that speaks to that point:

Just open your wireless port, call it, and then set yourself up as an 'ISP' with an FTP, web server, torrent tracker, etc. If you can convince enough people in your area to create access points and mirrors of the content we'll eventually cut out the telecoms and have a truly distributed data and communications network. Isn't that right Cory?
This might be rephrased, using what I view as a critical guideline for future action in many areas of our lives: Go local.

If you want to resist the oppressive power of the criminal large banks that are now sustained and even further enlarged in significant part with your tax money, as they increasingly impoverish our own lives: Go local. Avoid the large banks, and find a good, much smaller one. (Of course, part of what's going on is that the massive financial companies in conjunction with the immense power of the federal government -- thanks, Obama! -- are trying to wipe the smaller banks out of existence altogether. But they haven't fully succeeded in that effort, not yet.)

Buy your food from farms or co-ops in your area, to the extent you can. Go local. In part, this was the possibility I indicated in "Contemplating a Different World," and in the earlier, "The Tale that Might Be Told."

So even if the worst realities suggested by these treaty provisions come to pass, other possibilities will be identified and explored. In time, some of those possibilities will be realized. And then the whole process will be repeated again.

The tune changes, but the dance goes on. As any number of posts here indicate, I'm obviously not in the least denying that the ruling class is largely, if not exclusively, populated by vicious bastards, and I'm certainly not minimizing the profoundly horrifying level of devastation and suffering they cause. But the dance goes on.

We'll have to learn some new steps. That's always the way it works. That is, as we say, life. And that's a very good thing.