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Bang goes the Internet?

Published on January 30, 2012 by: in: Politics

The two sides of the ACTA dispute are represented by values that have never before been confronted in such a direct manner. Firstly, we deal with a crucial element of individual freedom, namely: respecting the inviolability of individual’s personal/intimate life. Secondly, we have the property right and its more abstract form of intellectual property and copyrights. That both these values are essential goes without saying.

Lately there have not been many debates so serious as the ongoing debate on ACTA in Poland. It concerns not only, or even not mainly, controversial contents of the document, but fundamental principles and dilemmas lying at the foundation of societies and relations between citizens, the state and powerful, global economic subjects.

I am not an expert on ACTA, but I do trust Ewa Siedlecka’s assessment, in which she criticized many of its aspects in Gazeta Wyborcza, and a similarly negative analysis in Panoptykon – one of the most renowned NGOs in Poland.

ACTA certainly confirms that some general, upsetting tendencies are present in the perception of the desired scope of freedom in virtual reality. It also proves that various countries, governed theoretically by our representatives, are willing to side with big concerns that as lobbies put pressure on politicians.

Freedom vs. property

ACTA reveals quite distinctly the issue that has been developing for some time, but emerged rather recently due to the revolutionary nature of the Internet.

The two sides of the whole dispute are represented by values that have never before been confronted in such a direct manner. Firstly, we deal with a crucial element of individual freedom, namely: respecting the inviolability of individual’s personal/intimate life. Secondly, we have the property right and its more abstract form of intellectual property and copyrights. That both these values are essential goes without saying.

Numerous Internet portals and services are the bone of contention in this case, as they allow users to download various materials, produced by certain authors, free of charge. In order to prevent any losses to authors and publishers precautionary measures are suggested in the form of strict supervision of individual users on the Internet. The next step, as we may expect, is penalizing the incriminated file-sharing websites.

File-sharing penalized?

The Internet enables us to practise on a larger scale something that has always been happening and potentially decreasing the earnings of authors and publishers, and yet nobody thought of penalizing it. As it was not possible. When I was a child I used to buy almost all comic books that I would find at a kiosk. I paid for them, because my parents could afford to cater for such fancies of an only child.

Theoretically, when a friend of mine asked me to lend him a copy after I read it, I should have said “no”. Perhaps, if I had said “no”, he would have bought this comic book. Due to my real-life file-sharing the publisher and probably the author suffered a loss. I caused similar damage by letting my fellow students make  photocopies of the scripts I had bought earlier or by letting my friends borrow VHS films from me or perhaps even by recording movies from the television and rewatching them multiple times. I do not know.

But I do know that if through those activities I had been earning money, i.e. lending for money, I would have broken the law. But I was lending materials for free and I believe that most of us have been doing this on regular basis. If files are uploaded and downloaded free of charge, then file-sharing websites are practising the same thing that was not stigmatized earlier – only on a mass scale.

Apart from the scale, the difference is that nobody was able to track the act of lending comic books, tapes or CDs to your friends (well, unless some eager-beaver was stalking teenagers at the kiosk). But theoretically every action and user on the Internet can be traced and consequently put to justice.

Allow keeping trace of users? No!

And that is how we have reached the crux of the matter. Can we accept the supervision of people’s activities on the Internet in the name of protecting property rights and copyrights? For me the answer is obvious. This justification is not sufficient. There are two reasons for that:

Reason no. 1. The alleged concern losses

It is pretty obvious. The harm done to artists, publishers and big companies due to file-sharing on the Internet is immeasurably smaller than the harm done to average citizens due to the supervision of their browser’s history.

Those lobbies exaggerate the issue, especially when they give us the numbers representing their alleged losses. They assume, rather arbitrarily and absurdly, that if anyone who downloaded their movies or CD on Megaupload or a similar website, had not had the opportunity to do so, would have gone to the cinema, bought the DVD or even BluRay (did you notice that even when produced on a mass scale films on new carriers are always more expensive than on the old ones?), or a music album. That is just utter rubbish.

If some of those people were to pay, they would give up watching the movie altogether (it will appear sooner or later on television), or they would borrow a CD from their friends and even copy it. People were doing this before the Internet and file-sharing, they would do it again.

The so-called piracy is not causing any spectacular losses to movie or music business, but rather a spectacular rise of popularity of some artists, whose works are now accessible without financial barriers.

The users of this shady file-sharing voluntarily become “multipliers” who encourage others to watch a film or listen to a song by just giving positive reviews or comments on the Internet.

If it were not for this huge Internet buzz, some of those people would not buy the film or music album legally. What is more, not everything can be downloaded in a form of a file. A fan who is a pirate is still a consumer of a whole range of merchandising. He follows his idol and gives him a huge amount of publicity measured by the number of friends on Facebook or followers on Twitter. Thanks to this, his idol becomes more attractive on the market for advertising companies. The money coming from this is immeasurably bigger that the potential income taken by file-sharing. Producers’ lobbies should really quit wailing.

Reason no. 2. Freedom over property

But this is a secondary issue. What is essential here is the fundamental principle: that the value of individual freedom and privacy is simply higher in hierarchy than property rights. Individual freedom is fundamental. Questioning it can lead to objectifying people, which directly leads to questioning other rights – including the property right. Property right is ancillary to individual freedom and therefore subordinated to it. We must not limit freedom for the sake of property rights, while a reverse action is possible, but also undesirable.

In this case it may be inevitable. Certainly, the way out of this dilemma cannot rely on the supervision of users on the Internet. Such standard would be potentially very dangerous.

And the menace of totalitarianism seized us.

In its beginnings, just like the mobile phone, the Internet seemed like a fantastic invention that would broaden our freedom. Unfortunately it was eventually seized by the menace of state authority, which tries to control us always and everywhere, at every point of history, in every part of the world.

In Poland – a land of tapping, billing collection, mobile log-in location data, where nobody controls this surveillance, nobody destroys the collected data, but hoards it, where text messages and e-mails are scrutinized as well – those modern technologies proved to be a bait that we fell for and instead of being a tool of freedom, they became a tool of control. A perfect, total control – with huge processing capabilities embracing all of us at the same time.

The elusive dream of totalitarian states’ secret service from the first half of the 20th century is now within grasp. We have to be able to count on contemporary authorities and their willingness to refrain from creating virtual profiles of users, in the name of protecting copyrights, in order to reveal and document their tendencies to weird pornography, eccentric political views, diseases kept secret or simply maintaining “inappropriate” relationships with certain people. My thesis is that every day one could compromise such a person and destroy his/her reputation with that sort of data.

Can we count on our authorities to hold their greed for information that concerns us? My personal belief is that we may not count on that in Poland, where all actions are organized according to a Soviet mentality and such standards. And in almost each case governing bodies tend to be restrictive, rather than allowing freedom.

But perhaps there are not any states that would allows such generosity towards their citizens. That is why we need firm regulations that would protect our privacy and freedom, and an independent supervision of their interpretation. This is what we need instead of ACTA. And even if the movie and music business loses couple of percents of their income, then I shall say: so be it. We must take the bad with the good.

Translation: Maciej Rogoza

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About Piotr Beniuszys

Piotr Beniuszys holds Master’s degree in sociology and political science; his views are to the right in economic issues, to the left in ethical and moral issues – i.e. liberal in both cases; the final chairman of Unia Wolności in Gdańsk, a former member of Democratic Party – demokraci.pl.

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