Sunday, 20 January 2013

Aaron Swartz as knight-errant? Wrong crusade, buddy

It's late and I'm tired but this question of what Aaron Swartz's death means continues to preoccupy me so I can't sleep. Before trying to do so tonight, I read a new article published in Australia by the Global Mail, one of my favourite websites. The article was written by Suelette Dreyfus, who is probably known to some people as the author of a book about Julian Assange's hacker days. It's a great book, and so Dreyfus is someone that I need to pay attention to. In the article, Dreyfus tells a story about Swartz when he met a US politician, and it's a gripping tale. She also points to SOPA and does a bit of probing about how that law would have functioned as a kind of censorship. Censorship of the web is certainly a big issue, one of far greater import than the kind of undertaking that Swartz was prosecuted for, which was the stealing of academic papers. Censorship should be a concern for everyone, and Dreyfus makes a great case for continuing the effort to ensure that it doesn't happen today.

Now, I spent a fair bit of time looking at SOPA early last year, and this is what I deduced, from reading stories about it, that it meant:
What the law is about, in effect, is distributing responsibility for breaches of the law of copyright. At the moment, the copyright holder holds all of the responsibility. What the entertainment companies are saying is: we want the middleman to also take on part of the burden of making sure that the law is not broken.
What might happen in the real world is that a copyright holder might tell a middleman, such as YouTube or Twitter, about an offending video or an offending link. The middleman would then immediately take it down – not wait until it had confirmed that a breach of copyright had actually taken place. Because of SOPA the middleman would act quickly, fearing that its entire domain could be taken offline. It seems to me that SOPA giving this kind of muscle to copyright holders is not such a bad thing.
Personally, I didn't find anything in those stories to alert me to censorship, so I have to take Dreyfus' word that this is what the US government intended to achieve. From my point of view, the law was a protective measure designed to stop people stealing their product. This, of course, continues to be a problem not only for big companies but also for individual creatives, many of whom work with big companies in the production of their work. Many do not, also, but online theft is also a problem for these people. Getting back to Swartz, many people in comments to my earlier blog posts made a fine distinction between the kind of material Swartz was targeting - where the public funding of reserach had made the publications he targeted essentially public domain, if you like - and the kind of work I'm talking about here. The problem is that I do not think that the majority of people are able to make this distinction. It's either "All theft of all material is ok," or "Theft of material should be prevented using the law". Most people do not even register the name Aaron Swartz on their mental radar. Hackers stealing information are either cool or they're criminals. Making a fine distinction an important part of a case to defend Swartz is, I think, unworkable given the nature of the public sphere. That's just the way it is.

Ok, so there will be people in the world, especially those in the geek community, who will be really revved up and ready to go on the back of what I've just said, but I want those people to just hold their horses and wait until I've finished. The way I've framed the issue is both credible and realistic. Your nice distinctions do not get through to the majority of people and that's all there is to it. Get over it and listen.

I also want to just gently grasp those enthusiastic geeks by their shoulders and turn them so that their attention is pointed away from the big companies that have been so active in trying to defend copyright material using laws like SOPA. Don't start telling me that copyright is too long or too onerous, for a start. Copyright is designed to protect the individual creative, so leave that one alone. And don't start telling me about middlemen in big companies who add no value and who are just vampires sucking the blood out of the poor consumer. Publishing and entertainment companies are free to organise themselves as they see fit, and it's just hubristic of anyone outside the industry to start to make judgements about their corporate structure. When a bunch of geeks successfully puts together a movie, a play, or a novel that people want to read, and fund and develop it themselves, then I'll start to listen to their views on the value that production companies can add to any particular work of art.

Now that I've steered those enthusiastic people away from the publishing and entertainment companies, I want them to look outside the glass box that they sit in alongside the individual creatives. Outside the box are lawmakers, public servants - a lot of them with very senior rank - and other people who are attached to government. Take a look at them because they're of a different order to the executives who work at publishing or entertainment companies. Those people out there are the ones who you need to focus on because the power they wield is many orders of magnitude greater than that which the CEO of Disney has at his command. I want you people to look at those guys and try to find ways to keep them accountable. They are the problem, not the execs in Mercs with 2-million-dollar houses in Malibu. And that's what Julian Assange was focused on.

On the point of Julian Assange, I wonder if more cannot be done by people in the geek community. As far as I can see there has been no appreciable effect from the efforts of Anonymous or any other vigilante hacker group, in terms of liberating Assange, setting up another WikiLeaks, or helping WikiLeaks to receive payments. The rival group that was talked about some years ago, to include people who left WikiLeaks, has not eventuated. Assange is still stuck in a ridiculous London apartment building. And Mastercard and Visa are still preventing individuals from donating money to WikiLeaks. Why?

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