Wednesday, January 18, 2012

and there was light... and it was good

For the next 24 hours, I am protesting ridiculous alarmism by reading verified facts in a book, with a light on.

This morning, I gave a brief talk about copyright reform to the staff at the Etobicoke School of  the Arts. I did not refuse to give the talk. I did not cover my mouth with duct tape, or demand that all the lights and my Powerpoint (TM) presentation be turned off. Unlike the large tech firms and free culture activists who have decided to take their ball and go home today, I actually engaged with people who were very likely to disagree with a lot of what I had to say.

We talked about Bill C-11, Canada's Copyright Modernization Act, we talked about DRM and pirate sites. We also discussed the current Stop Online Piracy Act and the Protect IP Act, two pieces of American legislation that free-culturists unsurprisingly believe will destroy the Internet and lead to widespread censorship without due process. We agreed, disagreed, agreed to disagree; then we checked each other's sleeves for hidden knives* and went about our day.

*If you're wondering about that reference, check Wikipedia for "history of the handshake"... oh, never mind.

There are all sorts of things I find disturbing about this Internet blackout protest from free culture. To begin with, I'm hearing an awful lot of lip-service today about piracy being bad and everyone agreeing on that, but...

Does everyone agree that piracy is bad?

I've spent over a decade of my professional life arguing for artists' rights on the Internet, and I think I've only heard the words "piracy is bad" with any sincerity from people in my profession. Most of the time what I hear from free culturists is that piracy is good, that it helps to build my audience in places that can't easily access my work, that in the long run it will mean more money for me. Why are these folks suddenly starting their highly publicized protest with 'piracy is bad" if they don't actually believe it? Why aren't they telling a suddenly wider audience their real opinions on piracy? Where's the sincerity? You know, I'd like to link to a lot more examples of free culturists advocating these new business models - like Cory Doctorow telling publishers and writers we should thank Google for taking our work without permission - but so many of them have gone dark it's hard to find the examples I know are out there. How convenient.

Besides, there should be no "but" after the words "piracy is bad." At least not until something is actually done about it, until we stop aggregators like Google from scanning books without permission, or from making huge ad revenues on sites that profit from stolen movies and music. Otherwise we're just swimming in hypocrisy. Piracy is bad, but we're just going to keep profiting from it.

Oh, Wikipedia. Maybe you should just stay dark.

The case of Wikipedia is more disturbing still. If my kids are going to be using a free online encyclopedia to help them with their homework, I would really like that encyclopedia to be neutral to a fault, so that my kids can examine verifiable facts, and make up their own minds how they feel about things.

Wikipedia has worked so hard in the past to address concerns about biased, politically slanted entries on its site. By taking this public stand, and by essentially holding their primary audience (schoolkids) hostage, and using their influence to send young minds into a protest they might not fully understand, Wikipedia has abdicated its responsibility as an educational source. Tomorrow, when Wikipedia turns the lights back on, and folks look up SOPA and PIPA to find out what happened, does anyone believe there will be a balanced, unbiased Wikipedia entry on the subject? How unbelievably sad.

Don't even get me started on the Canadian academic sites that have gone black today.

If you're genuinely worried about the potential for censorship and a lack of due process in the SOPA and PIPA legislations, don't go dark, don't stop talking for a day. Let in the light, all the light, the righteous light that shines on both the real fears and the alarmist, made-up ones. Your silence is only helping those who profit from artist-destroying piracy hide behind a black screen of ignorance and deception.

Feel free to use my declaration at the top of this posting on your Twitter and Facebook status updates - free of charge.

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UPDATE: After considerable pressure on Facebook from a respected member of the CanLit community, I am including some relevant links here to information about SOPA and PIPA so you all can go and make up your own minds on it. Debating SOPA/PIPA was not my intent with this posting, but it seems to be the day for it, so here goes.

1. Apparently you can still reach the SOPA and PIPA pages on Wikipedia, though I've read them and I continue to worry about neutrality. Apparently you can still use Wikipedia if you quickly hit the ESC key before the blackout screen attacks (not sure how this is supposed to make me respect the blackout more, but there it is). The SOPA/PIPA pages are here and here. Most blacked out sites also have links to articles they think you should read. You can't discuss those articles on the blacked out sites, but you can go and read them.

2. In the comment section of the New York Times, a Wikipedia contributor has resigned, saying this (on his own Wikipedia page):
The blackout of the English Wikipedia destroys forever the concept of its political and geographic neutrality. It means rather than an open group of international contributors, uniting solely around their commitment to writing an encyclopedia, with nothing else implied, Wikipedia is, through what can only be described as an Internet moral panic, now associated with a particular political position in a particular nation. While many, possibly most, Wikipedians may happen to hold this political position in common, it ought to have been irrelevant to editing here. Now it is not; a precedent has been set and something important has died.
3. For more on the disingenuousness of much of the criticism of this legislation, I refer you here.

4. For an interesting take on the protest from a VIMEO video blogger who also happens to express her own opinions on piracy, see here.

5. For many links showing support for SOPA, go here.

To be clear, I only support legislation that contains due process. Lack of due process is a standard free-culture bomb to throw at most Internet regulatory proposals. No blackout protester has shown me a lack of due process in these bills, though the accusation is made.


Sandy Crawley said...

Good one John. It is disturbing that even the president of the United States seems to be pandering to free culture nerds according to one report I saw.

Bruce Wilson said...

"Tomorrow, when Wikipedia turns the lights back on, and folks look up SOPA and PIPA to find out what happened, does anyone believe there will be a balanced, unbiased Wikipedia entry on the subject? How unbelievably sad."

Well, John, you can still read about SOPA on Wikipedia during the blackout, but you can't read about:

"List of legislators who support SOPA or PIPA"

Funny about that 'stop internet censorship' thing, eh? Seems to have a life of its own.


Sandy Crawley said...

Jaron Lanier on the subject: