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Nightfall over the Internet?

January 17, 2012

As I write this, the English edition of Wikipedia is scheduled in a few hours to begin its 24 hour blackout in protest against the proposed legislations – Stop Online Piracy Act, SOPA, before the US House of Representatives, and  – Protect IP Act, PIPA before the US Senate. No problem!

No problem if you are not worried that the information is “archaic” up to 24 hours when you want to check something on Wikipedia, if you can use Google’s cache. Google is not about to blackout, not even in China, if the clicks on their website will generate more revenue. Wikipedia has a different revenue model, one of contributions from the willing.

The SOPA and the PIPA are but proposed legislations of one country, no matter the country may be generating the most revenue, most page views. Wikipedia is of the opinion that these legislations would damage the free and open Internet, including themselves.

I support them. There is a difference to the threat to the freedom of the Internet posed by the likes of China, Saudi Arabia, or now a Union Minister and a metropolitan magistrate’s court in India, and that posed by the SOPA and PIPA. The jealously guarded freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the US constitution has been used to all intents and purposes in the US such that pornographers and fringe groups have full freedom to publish over the Internet. But SOPA and PIPA are about so-called “piracy”. It is for the protection of intellectual property.

Copyrights and patents have been helpful in easing the lives of authors, artists and inventors. But it can be pursued excessively, mindlessly. For instance, there is nothing so absurd as software patents. And the way the pharmaceutical industry milks the sick on the plea of development cost of drug molecules. The health insurance industry thrives on it indirectly, and all this illuminates the absurd Kafkaesque landscape of intellectual property rights.

I have said this elsewhere; my favorite examples of innovation without patents are Madame Curie’s refusal to patent the process of extraction for radium and Jonas Salk’s refusal to patent his polio vaccine. Capitalism is unable to answer the question of how creativity and innovation can be engendered if all livelihood has to be created only by the private sector.

The curbs that some countries would like to have would be for protection of the ruling classes by suppressing criticism or appeasement of vested interests. I have also written another blog about the political state preferring to foster conformism.

See this blog for more about the Indian context from someone else.

All of the curbs are ostensibly aimed at protection of certain entities or sections of population which or who the protagonists of the curbs consider are victims, against those they consider perpetrators, predators, aggressors. I do not know if anyone would have a quarrel with an assertion that the subjects of pornography are victims, and possibly the viewers too. But prostitution has not been reduced by laws against trafficking. Curbing pornography on the net by blocking offending websites may drive it back to the print industry and revive that.

In most other matters, there is always the question of what is offensive and what is artistic expression. What is criticism and what, abuse. In the case of Lady Chatterly’s Lover  which some consider obscene, the case has been decided, that the novel is artistic.

One problem, maybe the central problem, with such restrictions is the question of policing the police. Arbitrary high-handed actions of bureaucrats can in theory be set right by recourse to the courts of law under perfect conditions, but then what is the cost of the process? Especially if a small website has to fight a case in a faraway land, under foreign legal systems and practices.

And what if the judiciary joins hands with the bureaucracy and the political establishment to protect common turf? The Indian IT Act goes to the extent of prescribing incarceration for violations.

The part played by social media in the recent Arab Spring has been quite educative for vested interests.

All told, it seems the Internet that nobody owns is going to be a place that everyone blocks.

Tailpiece: Regarding the cost of litigation in a foreign land: I think the insurance industry may come up with a policy to pay for it if you can quantify and prove loss. But then the risk premium ascertained by the actuary may by itself drive a website out of business. That’s part of globalisation for you!

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