Jan 2, 2012
I spend a lot of time reading and posting (on Twitter and elsewhere) about the politics of the Internet, particularly issues regarding online speech and the open architecture of the web. I am vocal about my positions on many “offline” political matters as well, and try to back them up with action, but there’s something about advocating for the web that feels more communal, more urgent, and maybe ultimately, more effective. I don’t mean this in the illusory quasi-utopian sense put forward by techno-activists in the early days of the web (not that the days aren’t still early), but rather in the very concrete sense that the web’s history, technology and body of stakeholders are unusually harmonious.
Everyone has something at stake
One important (and practically cliche) characteristic of the Internet, as it has evolved in recent years, is that regular users have increasingly become content producers. They have a real ownership stake in the way the web works and the rules that govern it. Linking, sharing, quoting and remixing are fundamental to the web, but also fraught with legalities (legitimate and otherwise), which is why things like CreativeCommons and EFF have sprung up from within the industry to bring some order and balance to online copyright, while preserving and promoting the existing culture of openness. While citizens in “real life” (or whatever), through years of being beaten down, ignored, and propagandized, may be prone to letting harmful and irrational legislation pass unchallenged, those of us who create content on the web frequently respond to power-grabs, injustices and legislative threats with an immediacy that is uncommon offline. This perhaps reflects the “right now” nature of the network. But I think this immediacy is also related to the fact that many of us understand just how fragile the web actually is (technically, legally and culturally), and how easily it could be fundamentally changed or even destroyed by the rash actions of the ill-informed and/or ill-intentioned.
While there is ample room for debate and disagreement over tactics and ethics, I find in web protests like those of Anonymous or the Reddit-led mobbing of Cook’s Source an undeniably populist and democratic spirit. Many - notably the music and film industries – have complained that the Internet generation has an outgrown sense of entitlement. There may be some truth to that, especially when it comes to pirated content, but all in all, the web’s “power users” have also displayed a very sharp sense of justice, an affinity for the theater of public relations, and a knack for rapid coordination. Imagine the world we might live in were offline political organizing so fast and effective. (There is, of course, the obvious dynamic of anonymity at play here, which is not to be discounted. But one could argue that is equally the case for any sufficiently large protest, on the web or on the street. Anonymity is what makes the mob a mob, and mobs can be blamed for acts of brutality as readily as they can be credited for acts of liberation.)
“Go web young man!” (groan)
While it’s beyond ridiculous to call the web “the wild west” or the “cyber-frontier” or whatever the hell people say or used to say with that newscaster-y blend of vague understanding and condescending doom, it’s still an apt metaphor (or at least one that’s good enough to indulge for the next few sentences). The web really has always been about opportunity, possibility, growth, and a great push into the unknown. As with the westward expansion of 19th century America, the web has seen it’s share of gold rushes (real and hysterical), fortunes made and lost, an array of ever-shifting economies, and an embrace of the classically-liberal capitalist ideal that markets (in the modern case: investors, developers, and users) will decide the natural order of things, distant legislators be damned. (Of course, laissez-faire societies are rife with all forms of collateral damage. Perhaps we should begin to regard the 20th century version of the music industry as the wild buffalo of the digital age.) As the colossus crawls west, possibilities emerge for the young and recede for the old. In this dead horse of a metaphor, the web is both the prairie and the railroad, the developers are the prospectors, and users the settlers (California is basically still California). The danger and the promise are one: only the real frontiersmen know how to get things done out in this wilderness of ones and zeros, and yet our so-called statesmen have failed to even commission themselves a Lewis and Clark (to clarify, I’m talking about this horse shit).
Industry is on our side for once
The web/tech industry is historically rooted in openness and decentralization. Reading up on the history of the Internet and the web (see for example Johnny Ryan’s History of the Internet and the Digital Future or James Gleick’s The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood), you will see a recurrence of geeks (boy, am I tiring of that word lately) pushing back against authority, circumventing military protocol, skirting institutional bureaucracies, and escaping co-optation. The web and its core of makers have always pushed toward the fluid and open, and against the staid and stable. In many tech companies, one can almost detect a sort of institutional joie de vivre. Not to overstate or even fully accept such an assertion (corporations being profit-oriented legal constructs and not actual moral/emotional beings), but it makes sense in light of the fact that these companies are made up overwhelmingly of people who do what they do for a living because they would otherwise be doing it for free. The industry and it’s constituent parts have a shared interest in keeping the web as open as it was when they walked in the front door, and as fluid as it was when they were first seduced by its possibility.
Old media operates on a culture that could not be more opposed to that of the web, which is why they and their frighteningly-effective lobbyists have been cast (rightly) as enemies of the open web. Where the web fosters openness and decentralization, old media culture is one of centralization, hegemonic control, and hair-trigger litigation. For the most part, this is the culture of corporate America as a whole, but even the giants of the tech industry have a stake in maintaining an open, fair and free Internet. On the most obvious level, legislation like SOPA and PIPA present a very real threat to the existing legal and technical foundations of the web, which is why web and tech companies, joining open web activists, have been waging a very public fight against them, even as politicians and old media outlets struggle (or perhaps refuse) to understand what’s actually being proposed. But perhaps less obvious to some is the longer term threat posed by such heavy-handed intervention. It’s not just that SOPA, PIPA, and the like threaten the web of today (curbing speech while propping up the decrepit media titans of yesteryear), it’s that it threatens the web of tomorrow, and a whole range of innovation and opportunities yet unknown. As such, open web activism has yielded an unlikely common interest that includes citizens of every type, free speech activists, software engineers, entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, lobbyists, universities and massive multinational corporations.
That’s quite an unusual alliance and frankly if we can’t make progress to protect the web with that constituency, then one has to wonder about the entire premise of representative democracy. But I’m hopeful that progress will be made in the coming years, and while attacks may continue, I don’t think the dynamic described above will change any time soon. As we look down the barrel of yet another absurd and borderline retarded election year, it just feels good to be hopeful about something.
These bills are scheduled to come to a final vote on January 24th, 2012. If you haven’t already (and maybe even if you have), visit americancensorship.org, fightforthefuture.org or EFF.org to learn more about SOPA/PIPA and how you can help stop their passage. I know it’s a drag but you should really consider calling your representatives in Congress. Using a telephone.