The last few months have seen the Internet facing one of its most significant challenges in relation to its basic freedoms. It all started with the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act (COICA), which then became the Protect IP Act (PIPA) and, in its worst manifestation, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA). The common denominator of all these legislative proposals is the apparent willingness of the intellectual property industry to fight piracy and other types of infringement of intellectual property rights – at any cost. I emphasize ‘at any cost’ because this is the point where the legitimate claim to deal with piracy turns into an indecent war, waged against the Internet’s and society’s fundamental freedoms. In this regard, the fact that parts of the most powerful intellectual property interests are not willing to understand the new reality of digital content and creativity, creates a unique problem for a society, which has become so ‘gracefully’ attached to the Internet that it turns into a story worth-telling for the generations to come. It is really important, therefore, that we (at least) pay attention to some issues that have manifested themselves through this process.
The first thing we can observe from this almost 18-month exercise is that intellectual property protection has become the driver of Internet governance. The protection of copyrights and trademarks has lately dominated all Internet governance discussions at the ICANN, the OECD, the European Union and IGF levels – to name but a few. Camps for both sides have been created and debated extensively, whilst America has been sending conflicting messages regarding its own vision of Internet freedom. The world has heard the Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declaring America’s support for Internet freedom, whilst simultaneously witnessing an attempt by the US Congress to pass PIPA and SOPA, suppressing these very freedoms. At an international level, this insistence on intellectual property has given the Internet governance debate a problematic agenda, which focuses on one specific issue. It has distracted attention from other significant issues, creating a faux presumption that the Internet is all about intellectual property rights and their protection.
Another (anthropological) observation is that everybody seems to be talking about piracy - children, grannies, academics, politicians, journalists, civil society groups, the Hollywood, Record Labels, famous and independent artists, the Internet community - all take sides in favour or against the American proposals. Editorials have been written on the impact of PIPA and SOPA and Twitter has been on fire with hashtags encouraging followers to ‘retweet’ and raise awareness. This is significant. The fact that, unlike previously, such a debate is no longer happening within some closed doors of an international organization or other political institution, but instead everybody is involved is truly impressive and we should not take it lightly. This is the greatness of the Internet – it has spread the word that the US is proposing legislation that will change the way we interact on the Internet. And, Internet users have reacted. They are discussing it on Facebook, they blog and tweet about it, they follow and post comments and, in general, they engage in a debate they feel directly concerns them.
Here, an observation of governance can also be made: multistakeholderism is working. In this framework of stakeholder cooperation, we have experienced many changes and shifts. Actors have become more involved and much of the debate on piracy has turned into a debate about freedom of speech, American imperialism and the future of the Internet. Suddenly, the intellectual property community is left behind and civil society groups with the technical community have come together to support the Internet. This was an organic alliance and it appears to be based on the fact that the intellectual property community has managed to alienate the rest of the Internet community. Throughout this exercise, the intellectual property community denied to listen to the techies, who were warning about the dangers of tampering with the DNS and the infrastructure of the Internet; civil society groups were neglected when they talked about the impact on these proposals on free speech, requesting a balanced approach that respects the rights of fair use and freedom of expression. So, the IP folks should really not be frustrated that discussions on PIPA and SOPA were put to rest for the time being and many of their supporters are changing sides. This happened because, in a true multistakeholder environment, where Wikipedia, Amazon, Google and Facebook protest along with civil society, their voices are heard over and above businesses. This is the Internet at its very best.
An additional (political) observation is the wrong incentives SOPA and PIPA can provide to other countries. It has long been a stated fact that certain countries are unhappy with the existence of the “A” Root in the US and the de facto control the US Government appears to have on the DNS. This is a great opportunity for these countries to make some more noise. The fact that both SOPA and PIPA wish to manipulate domain names by taking them down, redirecting them or filtering their content can be a very persuasive argument against the kind of management and administration the US government is exercising upon this global Internet resource. What appeared to be a pure political argument becomes a legitimate one. This, of course, does not suggest that any other country will do a better job, but it certainly attests to the very fact that the US is failing to uphold its end of the deal and conduct appropriate administration of the DNS.
Finally, another (necessary) observation is that this is not the end of the road for either of these proposals or for the overall debate on intellectual property. This is fine. But, the nature of the debate now has to change; it cannot continue under the same premise that only existing creating industries should be protected and it can certainly not continue with only one participant on the negotiations table. The intellectual property community needs to start engaging with the other stakeholders and needs to listen. International institutions, where required, need to step up and need to become careful observers of this debate; civil society groups need to continue tirelessly their work and effort; the technical community needs to persist on preserving the stability and security of the network; and, governments, need to start resisting their lobbying processes and their lobbyists.
Following this debate closely myself, I feel many times like I am watching a Hollywood blockbuster movie - A movie about destruction, revenge, alienation and division, starring the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA), the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and the US Congress. Guest stars: Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, Facebook, Twitter, Anonymous and civil society.