Sunday, 26 February 2012

The Politics of Fear: Is It Effective?

Given the momentous events that have been taking place since the beginning of this year on the internet, which have spilled out into the real world and resulted in people being arrested and imprisoned, I think it's time to talk about the impact of using fear as a weapon in the ongoing war between the copyright maximalists, the tech world and those of us caught in the middle.

I've been blogging a lot about tech law because it's something that directly affects me. The idea that my website could be shut down at any moment without due process on suspicion of copyright infringement alarms me. My fears are not unfounded; the Jotform debacle has raised the issue among people who were formerly neutral on the issue. Here's the nub of it; both of the two main combatants — the copyright maximalists and the internet freedom lobby — are using fear to get people on side.

I'm going to examine how the fear factor is being applied and how effective it is for each side.

In the blue corner, the copyright maximalists

The copyright maximalists are predominantly American. They are, in no particular order,

  • Motion Picture Association of America
  • Recording Industry Association of America
  • International Intellectual Property Alliance
  • Business Software Alliance
  • United States Trade Representative

and others, according to a white paper by Susan K. Sell, Director of the Institute for Global and International Studies, and are mostly responsible for the raft of over-reaching, anti-democratic legislation that our governments are sleepwalking into in order to protect their interests. Although the document was published in 2008, the content is relevant today because it spells out the maximalists' agenda of control of content and the way it is used.

Advocates of the IP enforcement agenda have engaged in a shrill public relations campaign to frighten people into accepting their agenda. At a CropLife America meeting on December 1st 2007 Dan Glickman, head of the Motion Picture Association, recommended that advocates underscore the danger of counterfeited and pirated goods.

She also points out the vague language that would give copyrights holders — and American ones in particular — full control of the internet via collaborative law enforcement agencies who have no qualms about turning democracies into one massive police state ruled by the USA's copyrights holders lobby.

The fear factor

Vague blanket statements are made about copyright violators "maybe" being terrorists, stealing other people's property, creating unemployment by making it uneconomical to produce creative content, "dangerous" counterfeit goods such as exploding mobile phones or ineffective and/or poisionous drugs... the list goes on. Hang on a bit, didn't MPAA chief Chris Dodd warn of ineffective cancer drugs, rising unemployment due to piracy, and inflammable pajamas? Why, yes he did, and only yesterday, too. The inflated figures he quotes suggest that if this dreadful scourge is not ended now, all culture and society as we know it will utterly collapse.

The impact

The much-publicised arrest of Megaupload chairman and convicted fraudster Kim Dotcom is but one of many examples of copyright maximalism's agenda being pursued worldwide. Dotcom is currently out on bail because the presiding judge has ruled that no evidence of concealed wealth has been found so he's not a flight risk. Furthermore, since his assets have been seized, there's no way he can avail himself of the money that the rightsholders allege are his ill-gotten gains.

The SOCA takedown of with its ridiculous "We're watching you" notice and the insistence that it's all for the good of Team GB and saving musicians' careers from being "damaged" has been widely ridiculed., an intellectual property law blog, commented on the "circumvention of the court order." The chilling effect of this has apparently caused one other music site to shut down and another to consider the move. SOCA haven't named them, and neither has anyone else.

The temporary takedown of Jotform by the Secret Service (since when was it the Secret Service's job to enforce copyright law?) resulted in a massive internet storm and prompted the comment from Jotform's cofounder, Aytekin Tank,

This can happen to any web site that allows user generated content.

Jotform continues to have problems with "phishers" abusing the service but with so many members, most of whom are legitimate users, it's hard to police. Much of the proposed legislation has been about forcing websites that allow user generated content to check that none of their content is infringing copyright, but the speed of the Jotform takedown and the lack of warning demonstrates that there's not much point in compliance; they'll take you down anyway without due process if your domain registrar is willing to act on requests from law enforcement agencies. Jotform is concerned about the prospect of losing customers over this, and GoDaddy has experienced a massive backlash in the tech blogs as a result. Jotform are hosting with now.

This has been widely regarded as an own goal for both the law enforcement agencies and the copyright maximalists who are being portrayed as mendacious, sneaky, and overbearing even in the mainstream press.

In the red corner, the tech blogs and the internet freedom advocacy groups

Michael Geist is an oft-quoted law professor at the University of Ottawa. He's been influential in the ongoing struggle for internet freedom and is held in high regard by Ars Technica and Techdirt.

Ars Technica is a tech blog that keeps its readers up-to-date with the latest tech innovations and policy news.

Techdirt is a news analysis blog that examines and posts opinion pieces about tech news.

CNet is a news and reviews blog that posts news about IT products, services, and internet law enforcement.

Mashable is a social media and tech blog.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) is a donor-funded nonprofit organization devoted to defending free speech, privacy, innovation, and consumer rights. It's in the forefront of defending us against the copyright maximalists' attempt to exert a stranglehold over cultural expression and content sharing via litigation. As well as donating, you can take part in their democracy-supporting activities via their action center.

The Internet Freedom Movement (IFM), formerly called Stop SOPA, has a presence on Blogger, Facebook, Google + and Twitter.

There are thousands of others, but the IFM and the tech blogs is where I spend most of my time when researching material for tech news posts.

The fear factor

There was some talk on Twitter about websites going dark to protest an anti-piracy law I thought was just a load of pointless puff-uppery from a bunch of US politicians and I didn't give it much thought until I went to use Wikipedia on Jan 18th of this year. Instead of link-rich research material in the world's biggest online encylcopedia I found that the page had been turned black and a stark warning from Jimmy Wales that the freedom of the internet was in the balance unless every man, woman and child got involved in a massive protest against what I thought was an American problem.

Then I switched browsers from my usual standby, Cometbird, to FireFox because I wanted two windows open while I flitted between my personal and business Gmail accounts so I could play with the features on Google +. Firefox and Google were at it, too. Perturbed, I looked further into it and have been agitating ever since. I'm just not the same person any more. I've never had that much of an interest in politics but as a web designer struggling to make a living using open source programs instead of the clunky, overpriced Adobe industry standard software, I'm absolutely terrified of losing GIMP, Inkscape, or Kompozer to overreaching patent and software copyright claimants because they're compatible with Adobe products. I couldn't believe what I was reading — not in some histrionic conspiracy theory forums but in the sober tech blogs I usually read.

"Enjoy prison," - Chris Heald for Mashable.

What? Why? 

An `Internet site is dedicated to theft of U.S. property’ if [a portion of the site is US-directed] and is used by users within the United States and is primarily designed or operated for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables or facilitates [copyright violation or circumvention of copyright protection measures]. 

"Still doesn’t sound that bad, but consider this: Any site that allows users to post content is “primarily designed for the purpose of offering services in a manner that enables copyright violation.” The site doesn’t have to be clearly designed for the purpose of copyright violation; it only has to provide functionality that can be used to enable copyright violation... Simply the act of not actively screening every piece of content makes you a criminal under SOPA,"

he continued, citing the above clause from the law document, which he'd linked in the post, having instructed us to read through it ourselves. Wow. The surveillance society predicted by George Orwell in 1984. This is not Chris Heald scaring us into submission to his way of thinking, he's just quoting book, chapter and verse of the law and explaining what it means in real terms to you and I.

The impact

The world I used to take for granted has been completely replaced with an ongoing war of attrition between the copyright maximalists who are trying to rob us of our freedom so they control the internet and bleed us dry and the tech bods and concerned citizens who are having none of it. Stuck in the middle are the ordinary Joes who don't really understand what all the fuss is about and expect the politicians to sort it out as they always seem to do.

I'm not scared because Chris Heald reckons I could go to prison for having a blog that people can comment on, which obliges me to monitor the comments for possibly infringing material. I'm certainly not scared because Techdirt, CNet, Ars Technica and the IFM keep reporting website takedowns and restrictive new legislation that's on its way. I'm not even scared because it's been reported that the law can just come in sans court order and shut you down with no warning, aided and abetted by your domain provider. Hell, no.

I am downright flippin' terrified because politicians who should know better are waving vague threats about child pornography, terrorism, rising unemployment and a further collapse of the economy in front of us in an attempt to convince us to accept these ridiculous laws and treaties. When they resort to that, you know it's not true. But sometimes people fall for this crap and THAT'S what the problem is. These laws might be passed if our representatives are frightened of what will happen if they're not.

The upshot of it all: is it a simple matter of us V them?

I didn't know whether to laugh or cry when I read this report on Reuters: apparently the CIA hasn't been keeping up with tech news:

the CIA wants to buy software services on a "metered," pay-as-you-go basis, Ira "Gus" Hunt, the agency's top technology officer, told an industry conference.

The matter is incredibly complicated, mostly due to the copyright laws that are already in place. The whole lot really needs to be completely overhauled and the copyrights industry advocates put in a place where they no longer dictate policy. They have far too much power as it is.

Some of the people who feel it is their duty to protect the internet are going about it with excessive zeal, gaining notoriety but also being used as a catch-all and scapegoat excuse for passing more bad laws. Needless to say, fear-mongering and protectionist rhetoric are being used as if the powers that be don't realise we're on to them.

Honestly, I could say, "If you don't join the Internet Freedom Movement right now, you're a fascist intent on sucking up to the jackbooted minions of the capitalist oligarchy." I could even get the words "running dogs" in there somewhere but I'd sound just as hyperbolic and histrionic as the cynical, greedy copyright maximalists. The truth is, I reckon that if you don't join the Internet Freedom Movement right now, you either don't pay much attention to tech news, you don't think it's your problem or you're doing something else to make your voice heard. But you might want to think about it.


I wrote this post to discuss whether fear-mongering works, and who it works for. The copyright maximalists want to scare us into meek acceptance of their increasingly restrictive agenda by convincing us that mass unemployment and more social problems will result if we don't do what they want. The tech bods want to keep the internet as open and free as possible by convincing us that accepting these laws will limit our freedom, stifle creativity, and lead inexorably into a surveillance society in which we're all guilty until proven innocent.

In the end, it was the consdescending exaggeration and vaguely-worded fear-mongering of the copyright maximalists that frightened me into opposing them rather than the logical reasoning and careful explanation of the facts provided by the tech bods. Way to go, Chris Dodd et al. Great job! Now please go away and leave the internet alone.

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