Tuesday, February 10, 2009

Something we need to resolve

Oh goody, the stimulus fight gets worse and worse: now the recording industries want the stimulus bill to include a provision for filtering everything American consumers do at any time, everywhere on the Internet, on behalf of their holy war to protect their business model.

We're in a weird age for the Internet. The closest analogy I can think of is TV during the early-mid 1950s, when everyone was beginning to understand how important the medium would really be, but nobody was sure how far it could be taken.

If you saw Good Night, and Good Luck, this is kind of where the Internet is today, except that Clooney et al. neglected to mention one important fact: at that time, it was not yet a matter of settled law that television broadcasters had the same press freedoms that newspapermen did. That concern weighed heavily on the minds at CBS, who believed that Murrow's broadcasts against McCarthy could very well get the network shut down.

The problem was the ambiguity over what kind of status TV had in the public sphere. Was it like newspapers, which had substantial constitutional rights? Or was it like movies, where the industry was presumed to self-censor for fear of government intervention?

The eventual answer was that TV was more like newspapers, but it took a while. Today, we still have the unresolved ambiguity of the Internet, but the opposition is even more stark: does a person on the Internet have the presumption of innocence? The answer, according to police forces, the recording industry, and the Maude Flanderses of the world, is no. Your behaviour, in private and behind closed doors, should be presumed to be criminal and you should be subject to a permanent, government-mandated wiretap. And if you try to encrypt any of your traffic, you've just proven their point.

This is especially astonishing when you consider how absurd this would be if we took it offline. Propose that the government should be able to open every piece of mail in order to snuff out child porn and copyright infringement, and you'd be laughed at. Suggest that police no longer be required to produce search warrants if they suspect you've got a collection of child porn in your basement, and the courts would dismiss you before you knocked down your first door.

But people don't take the Internet seriously, the way they do phones, mail, or their own homes. There's no reason this should be the case. I simply could not do any of the things I do to support and educate myself, much less keep in touch with friends and family, if I didn't have the Internet. Even if I tried to go entirely old-school, none of my friends would follow me.

So the choice we've been offered is a simple one: participate in the commons and face constant surveillance in the name of ridiculous, arbitrary special interests, or a modern version of ostracism. It's an absurd situation, and one that the west needs to reverse, before we find ourselves sleepwalking in to something awful.

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