Not sure what to say about the sudden death of Aaron Schwarz, idealist, freedom-fighter-extraordinaire and friend of open access to information for all of humanity. Aaron spend his life fighting for humanity's highest ideals, contributing to technologies most of us use every day (even if we don't know it). It just feels like something is very, very wrong is the so-called 'free world' is killing its best and brightest for living up to its highest ideals. We've got big problems and cannot afford to lose people like Aaron.
Cory Doctorow has written a eulogy here, Prof Lawrence Lessig had an overview of the case the US Department of Justice (ha!) saw fit to launch against Aaron. Glen Greenwald wrote about his heroic work in helping to defeat SOPA over the last years. A digital memorial to Aaron will be here for as long as there is an Internet. The files that started the case can be found here. Spread them around as wisely as possible.
But mostly just watch Aaron's speeches and interviews, as many times as needed before you understand his ideas and ideals fully.
hen in the Course of human events it becomes necessary for people to dissolve the commercial, legal and moral bands which have connected them with an industry and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which their most fundamental principles entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all lives are enriched by the sharing of culture, that citizens are endowed by their democracies with certain unalienable rights, that among these are knowledge, true ownership of their property and the sharing of culture. That to secure these rights, laws are instituted among the people, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed. That whenever any of these laws become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish them, and to institute new laws, laying their foundations on such principles and organizing their powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.
According to Dutch Economics Minister Maxime Verhagen, 'ordinary' people have nothing to fear from ACTA. This treaty is merely designed to shut down child pornography sites. Go to the link and have another listen (in Dutch), because he really does say this!
That's good because, although I quite like a good download, I tend to limit myself to movies and books that fall a little more within the acceptable media spectrum. However, this statement gives us a fascinating glimpse into the mind of our Minister-of-All. Apparently in the case of distribution of photographic evidence of actual child abuse he is first and foremost concerned with possible copyright infringement. Is this a professional contortion or is he simply exceptionally goal orientated? This is what journalists should be pouncing on. For the lulz.
But beauty emerges even from the surrealist farce that is modern western copyright policy. No, I'm not talking about more music, movies or books, for there is no evidence that more culture is created by fanatically prosecuting 14-year olds for downloading. However, the recent weeks have clearly shown the usefulness of a common enemy. Thanks to ACTA, more Europeans than ever are involved in a critical discussion of modern copyright law and the balance with civil liberties. That is a wonderful development. Furthermore, it now seems that ACTA is dying following the remarks of European Commissioner Viviane Reding (she senses the political climate). One European country after another is delaying signing the treaty. In the three years since the “crisis” citizens have developed a fairly sharp bullshit filter to detect the kind of neo-liberal nonsense that ACTA is full of, and they will take no more. Like Software Patents it always takes awhile for the protests to get going but once they go representatives tend to choose the side of the people who can get them in a seat by voting in a few years.
Yesterday was the big SOPA protest day. Wikipedia (in English), Boing Boing, Reddit and many other sites were blacked out. Other sites, and even google.com had one-line banners beneath the bar exhorting me to contact the US Congress. The link said: "millions of Americans Oppose PIPA and SOPA because these bills would censor the Internet and slow economic growth in the US". Even a classic song urges me "to call my congressman". But google.nl, did not show this - clearly indicating that it perceived the matter to be an internal American political problem.
In recent weeks there have been many calls for action outside the US against SOPA. These calls have been synchronized with outrage and protests as Bush Obama signed the NDAA anti-terrorism law. Under this law, anyone in the US "suspected" of involvement in "terrorism" (both nebulously defined) can be indefinitely imprisoned or even killed without trial or any other form of judicial review (think Stalin '30). The anger itself is justified, but more than ten years too late. Indeed the only new provision in the NDAA is that the US can now treat its own citizens in ways that have been enforced against the world's other 6.5 billion people since 2001.
Socially aware people are, often justifiably, very good at moral indignation, but they just as often display a touching naivety. I recently watched with some surprise the American Occupy activists who were shocked (shocked I tell you!) as policemen (or university rent-a-cops) launched unprovoked attacks using batons and pepper spray.
It is indeed despicable that these officials use so much violence. But if people are still shocked by this in 2011, one has to wonder where they've been hiding for the last 10 years – have they not watched the news? Did they think that they could let stolen elections, illegal wars of aggression, shooting children with anti-tank weapons and the torture of innocent civilians happen without the ultimate consequence of their govenment using the same force against them?
But even the naive indignation of some Occupy activists about their government and its boot boys, is nothing compared to the childish surprise of the IT press about ACTA and SOPA. The copyright industry has for decades lobbied for the length of copyright to stretch to the end-of-time-plus-a-day extra.
Sony has no problems with infecting computers of their customers with what amounts to a virus. A torrent of writs has poured forth from the offices of copyright enforcement. Babies and the elderly without a PC, deceased persons, and even a HP laser printer have been falsely accused of copyright infringement (labeled as “theft” by the lawyers of the industry). Surely we all know the kinds of organisations we are facing now?
<originally a Webwereld column - in Dutch>
In 1996 I got my first MP3s. Storage was expensive, so I burned files onto CD-ROMs. There were 10 to 12 audio CDs on a CD-ROM. Conversion of an audio CD to a series of MP3s lasted hours using an encoder from the command line. They could only be played on a PC (or a very expensive laptop) so I had no good answer to the frequent question from family and friends: “why do you bother?”. Except that I was confident that bigger hard drives and smaller, cheaper laptops would evolve. I first had an audio PDA in 2000 – with a 256Mb memory card that could hold a few albums. I've forgotten what all that has cost, but probably quite a lot.
A year later, Apple came out with iTunes to make it easy to manage digital music collections. The first iPods with graphical software came along soon after, and MP3s were accessible to a wider audience. The result is that virtually all music can be downloaded from somewhere. It is up to the individual whether to pay for it, because downloading is not illegal in many countries and even where it is, there has been little noticeable effect on people's behavior.
The Dutch Considerati think tank reported earlier this week that there is still widespread downloading in the Netherlands. But for an allegedly 'broad' piece of research, some key parties were missing - Bits of Freedom, for example. Nor did the study consider fundamental questions about the social or economic value of copyright that lasts for more than a century (when once it only lasted for 15 years), probably because those ordering the report did not want that question asked, let alone answered. There was also no mention of the copyright industry aggressively lobbying behind closed doors where laws are hammered out that our European representatives are not even allowed to see, let alone influence.
The entire debate is reduced to a financial accounting exercise for a particular industry. So all is perfectly OK then, as I have nothing to do with it – I don't work in that industry – nor indeed do the vast majority of people. The comments on Webwereld.nl quickly show that almost nobody takes such research seriously.
Now The Pirate Bay is outlawed in the Netherlands - although this ban has yet to be tested in Dutch courts - the copyright industry and its tame lobbyists face a difficult choice: should they take their customers to court or not?
This question is crucial to the survival of the lobby groups. Since the cost of fighting downloading is much higher than income, large entertainment companies constantly need convincing that all these indirect lobby costs will at least produce results in the longer term. Nobody wants to think that the funding of lobby groups is ineffective, even if those organisations claim hundreds of site removals annually.
Prof. Hugenholz's contribution to The Great Download Debate in The Netherlands last week was clear: laws and treaties that are unalterable in the short term will determine the legal framework of the downloading debate. The professor himself called it a "legal reality check". As I understand the situation, it does not matter much whether you vote for the Pirate Party or the conservatives in the upcoming election next week. Successful lobbying by the copyright industry over the last 100 years has led to a system of laws, treaties and international guidelines that has locked down the entire system, and which seemingly can only be changed when moving in the wrong direction. ACTA teaches us that the endlessly lengthening terms of copyright and the further privatisation of the investigations of alleged infringements are not a problem.
So on the one hand our democracy is effectively sidelined. This apparently immutable situation gives the copyright industry a free hand to try to charge you every time you honour the works of your favourite artist by singing out loud in the shower.
In recent weeks a number of leaked documents has made it crystal clear how a cluster of companies (hereafter referred to as the "copyright industry") warns off any threat to its commercial interests. The copyright industry consists of all those companies whose business models are based on the most extreme neo-liberal interpretation of copyright. In this interpretation, the ability to make money by endlessly re-selling the same piece of intellectual property is considered more important not only than democratic control over the creation of laws, but also than basic civil rights such as the principle of innocent until proven guilty.
"You cannot compete with free" is a commonly held perception of the music industry in its fight against piracy. Piracy must be tackled with harder and heavier penalties. But is 'free' what the industry is competing with?
Long before the Apple iTunes Music Store came along, angry consumers were already sharing music online. An adolescent in an attic programmed the Napster service (the precursor to services like Kazaa and Limewire) and demonstrated that there was a market which, along with its billions of revenue, was rejected by the industry. For the consumer it was a logical step: content could be bought in the same way the Internet worked, without international shopping hours. Albums that were never released in the Netherlands could be on your hard disk ten minutes later. Films and series that were not released in the Netherlands could still be viewed immediately.
On the second day of HAR2009 a copyright debate was held between the entertainment industry and the hacker community at HAR2009 in the Netherlands. Tim Kuijk very bravely represented the views of the entertainment industry while Walter van Holst and myself put forth a range of contrarian views and Prof.dr Wilfred Dolfsma moderated us and a full Monty Hall of hackers. Because of some slight historic animosity between hackers and the entertainment industry we made a real effort to keep everything civilised. Since no tomatoes were see flying or Godwin's law invocations were required I think we succeeded. I've stated my personal views on copyright in the 21st century on various occasions on this blog.
The last weekend of July, I was with two friends in Bristol. A city we would never have visited, had it not been for museum exhibition of Bristol graffiti artist Banksy.
The exhibition is the most popular the museum has held over the last hundred years. Eeven though we went a few weeks after the opening, we still had to queue for about half an hour to get in. How often do you see that at a museum?
A BBC report also stated that business in the city benefited. Like us, many people were visiting Bristol especially for the exhibition, and they all needed somewhere to eat, drink and sleep. There are even hotels with special "Banksy arrangements' for the guests.
Banksy is good for the city, said a member of "Destination Bristol" proudly to camera. But the weird thing is that the city has not treated him well in the past. When we asked someone where we could find some original “street works” of Banksy, we were pointed on the map to a number of places where the city had painted out his works .
I want to thank the American entertainment industry for all the media attention and free advertising they have generated for The Pirate Bay. Because the peer-2-peer downloading system works better with more participants, I am always happy when more people become aware of such media sources - an excellent alternative to broadcast TV-with-advertising every 6 minutes. Why wait a year for an episode of House, Battlestar Galactica, Bones, Greys Anatomy, or any TV series, if you can download it 24 hours after the first screening anywhere in the world, and watch it whenever and wherever you want and on the device that suits you best? The time of PCs connecting to your TV is an anachronism. With a Popcorn Hour or AppleTV + XBMC it is as easy and convenient to watch videos as using a DVD.
In an article in the Dutch newspaper NRC on April 17th Martin Bossenbroek and Hans Jansen explain why copyright prevents the development of a national digital library. For such a library to work over the Internet, existing law requires that all authors are tracked down and their consent obtained. In many cases this is almost completely impossible.