Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Blackout In The Age Of Information

If you are reading this today, January 18th, 2012, then you are lucky. These words, saved on a server somewhere, accessible by typing a name into or clicking a link on your web browser, which sends a request to that server for the information over the various interlinked computers that comprise the Internet, are being displayed before you for your perusal, having survived an arduous journey at incredible speeds through various and sundry networks and via any number of different types of wires or conduits. To you, the user, the reader, it is virtually instantaneous, and you are left unaware of the sequence of events that must transpire for this information to reach your eyes.

As Arthur C. Clarke once noted (paraphrasing), any sufficiently advanced technology would appear as magic to us. No doubt, the Internet and all the things that are on it, appear to arrive magically at the window that sits before you now, with just a few mouse clicks or keystrokes or swipes of a finger on glass. Not unlike a car, the mechanics of what transpires do not enter in to our minds when we turn the key on the Internet. It is just there, ubiquitous, waiting for us.

What if it that were not so?

You will have not heard much about what I will tell you, perhaps because the principals involved tend to hold the keys to your information supply. Corporations that provide news and entertainment are up in arms about what they perceive as the "misuse" of their intellectual property, given the propensity of the denizens of the Internet to take the content there and share it, or rearrange it into new and even more interesting forms. To that end, these corporations, acting like petulant children, are prepared to take their ball and go home, or more precisely, prepared to force those who manage and run the Internet, the Internet Service Providers (ISPs), search engine managers (Google, Yahoo, etc.), and web content providers (YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, etc.), to remove content based on their intellectual property, and block sites that use it without permission.

The bills are H.R.3261 -- Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and S.968 -- PROTECT IP Act of 2011 (PIPA). While I suggest you read them for yourselves, their density may make comprehension a bit difficult, but here is the gist of it: should either come into law, they will give intellectual property holders the right to force those companies that handle Internet content and its dissemination to remove content they consider a violation of their intellectual property rights, without so much as a warning. In essence, these corporations can turn off your access to information at a whim, whenever they feel like it.

You may wish to believe this is hyperbole, but it is the stone cold truth. The fact is, it is not terribly hard to block Internet content; at any point along the chain required to bring information from a server to your web browser, the signal can be cut off, dropped, or blocked. Your request for the information may never reach the server to begin with, leaving you with an error message and a corporation safe behind the walls of it information fortress, having successfully forced its Internet serfs to do its bidding.

At its most basic level, this is a direct assault against the First Amendment. Speech, in any form, cannot be censored where such censorship is enforced haphazardly and with malicious intent. And believe me, the ideas behind this, which seem reasonable enough to the common citizen when couched in the terms corporations would use, go to the very heart of what makes this the Information Age. These corporations seek to treat information as a commodity, to be regulated, bought, and sold. Now, it is not beyond the pale for the author or creator of a work to wish to profit from their labors; such is the essence of American values that we do protect intellectual property in the first place. However, with the rise of a globe-girdling, nearly-instantaneous communications network slowly wrapping itself around us, there comes a point where, once information, any information, has made it into the public sphere, control of it nigh impossible. This is not unlike the revolution created by the printing press, where suddenly great works could be cheaply copied and distributed to the masses. Of course then, the rapidity with which information was glacial compared to its speed in the Information Age, but the principle is the same... in theory.

The practicality of measures to prevent the unregulated spread of information via the Internet are absurd at best and constitutionally challenging. When one bit of information is put anywhere on the web, withing a very few minutes it may be replicated across the globe, outstripping any chance the author might have of controlling its spread. Information now moves at nearly the speed of light, and as such, can be bounded only by relativity. Any method a person can think of to control its spread, can be circumvented by another person similarly motivated.

So, we have these corporations, calling upon their duly paid-for lackeys in Congress, attempting to swat flies with a sledgehammer in the form of these bills. The metaphor is apt, because though one might hit the fly with such a prodigious weapon, there will be more misses than hits, and more collateral damage than dead flies. The impracticality and hubris behind this legislation is the hallmark of what a corporation can dream up, limited as they are in the areas of imagination and connection to reality. Believing their own press, they fully believe that they are masters of a world that passed them by long ago.

To put it simply, these bills seek to treat the creativity and inventiveness of the common citizen as a disease, and seek to treat the symptoms. The fact is, the old paradigms in publishing, writing, movies, and television no longer work. Slowly, the ice man and the milk man faded from the scene, and so, too, will the mega media conglomerate. Even now, people can publish their own works, write their own plays, film their own movies and skits, taking the control of content away from those who cling to it so desperately. Across the globe, citizens are learning to entertain themselves, and this scares those corporations that have made a living giving the people what they wanted to give us.

Today, across the Internet, many major web sites and quite a number of minor ones have gone dark. They do so, to illustrate how information may be taken from you and I, to point out that our ever expanding appetite for information can be choked off quite easily, if such bills are allowed to become law. It would only take a little thing -- a sentence fragment, a trademarked name, a piece of an image -- to allow some corporation to run rampant through the Internet and force the shutdown of sites simply because they felt their property was misused. It is the equivalent of holding Chrysler or Volkswagen responsible when one of their vehicles is used to commit a crime.

I implore you to take the time, learn what there is to learn about this, and then contact your legislators and voice your opinion. If, like me, you see this as an attack on our freedom of speech and the free flow of information, you must do your part to let our legislators know we will not stand for them caving in to corporate interests, no matter how much they received in campaign contributions from them. Freedom and liberty are more important at the end of the day, than the size of a corporate bank account.

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