Can't Fight the River? Build a Boat
Recently, members of the United States government tried passing two laws—SOPA (Stop Online Piracy Act) and PIPA (Protect IP Act). The bills were intended to strengthen protections against online copyright infringement and intellectual property theft. It was backed by both Democratic and Republican representatives, as well as most Hollywood corporations and other content providers, who argued that online piracy was stealing profits from their content-based industries.
In response, through a large surge of online protests, netizens sharply argued that the new legislation would stifle expression in the World Wide Web. Even notorious hacking organization Anonymous, (famous for, among other things, hacking Tunisian and Egyptian government websites during the Arab Spring) issued a joint statement with the Pirate Bay—perhaps the biggest torrent website on the web, arguing against the infringement upon personal freedoms of expression the bill could have.
“Worst case we'll change (our) top level domain from our current .org to one of the hundreds of other names that we already also use,” the statement said, if the legislation went through. “In countries where TPB is blocked, China and Saudi Arabia springs to mind, they block hundreds of our domain names. And did it work? Not really.”
With Anonymous' long list of “accomplishments” along with how widespread Pirate Bay has become, it is hard to believe that the creation of such legislation could truly block piracy or hacking for long.
Beyond fringe hacking organizations and piracy sites, the response to the proposed bill went far deeper. Although not without their own motivations, legitimate internet companies like Facebook and Google took up the fight against the legislation, effectively pitting themselves against content providers.
Even Wikipedia which observes an audience of 20 million visitors a day along with other internet companies decided to black out their sites for a day. For Wikipedia, the new legislation would mean a nearly insurmountable amount of content maintenance as well as legal accountability. But Wikipedia Founder and CEO Jimmy Wales also stated, “I hope we send a broad global message that the internet as a whole will not tolerate censorship in response to mere allegations of copyright infringement.”
While the motivations for Wikipedia are clear, an activistic slant to its message, whether manufactured as a rhetorical strategy or actually genuine, has appealed to netizens, who do not want their internet experience to be limited. Despite living in an age where the hacking of financial records, emails, and other personal information is an everyday occurrence, we can see that netizens are firmly opposed to their freedom of information and expression being compromised by the industries they consume from or the governments that oversee them.
While governments need to find an effective way to safeguard from hacking and piracy, it is evident that we cannot do so at the expense of netizens' rights. The question becomes larger. Both legal standards as well as new internet security solutions need to be developed and reformed where necessary. It is tantamount not only to protect netizens' rights to speech and freedom of information, but also to ensure the financial gains of corporations.
Corporations need to continue to reform their business practices if they expect to have a competitive edge in a constantly evolving market. They need to recognize that online piracy is not something that will go away any time soon. The internet has made us more free, but attempting to remove that freedom, is like trying to fight a river: It's far too powerful—always shifting and changing around you.
Thanks to the internet, we can get content and information faster and more efficiently. Many young internet users know what a “torrent” is and thereby how to download books, movies, and music free of charge—albeit illegally. They do so because it's cheap. But they also do so because it is primarily the internet that has exposed them to a larger variety of content than previous generations ever had the opportunity to consume.
These circumstances could ultimately be a beneficial exchange for both content creators and content consumers. Content providers however have not yet figured out how to successfully “sell” their merchandise—with a few exceptions. Netflix, for example, provides a monthly streaming video service offering an extensive database of constantly renewable movies and television programming—all provided at an affordable monthly price. Even though the service is not free, consumers are still willing to pay because it is affordable, easy to use, and its content is diverse. Netflix is giving consumers what they have craved all along out of their relationship with the internet—convenient access.
Meanwhile, Hollywood and other content providers continue to fight for lost profits while they should be thinking about how to evolve their business models for the internet age. As the young, internet savvy demographic grows older, they will only be replaced with another generation of even more savvy internet consumers. If corporations cannot prevent against hacking and online piracy, they need to integrate the internet into their approach. If you cannot the fight the river, you may as well build a boat to get you to where you want to go.