What Was Behind the Internet Censorship Controversy?
On October 26, 2011, the House of Representatives introduced the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) with the support of both political parties. Building on the Senate’s PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), SOPA would have given the United States government unprecedented powers to censor the internet. Three months later, both SOPA and PIPA were withdrawn in the face of a growing protest movement culminating in a 24-hour blackout of several prominent websites. The dispute over SOPA and PIPA brought about renewed discussion of questions relating to intellectual property, censorship, and corporate and government control of the internet. Even now that SOPA and PIPA are off the table, these questions remain.
These past few months have seen Democrats and Republicans coming together to champion the censorship of the internet in the defense of corporate profits. They have seen popular opposition to corporate control of the internet being led by corporations that control the internet. They have seen unions come out in support of their employers. The bills have been defeated and the movement against them has subsided. But a deeper look at the controversy provides a valuable understanding of the nature of the internet under capitalism.
Censoring the Internet
Had they passed, SOPA and PIPA would have given the U.S. government new powers to censor the internet under the pretext of fighting digital piracy. If a website had been suspected of engaging in digital piracy, the laws would have granted the government power to prevent search engines from linking to the site and force internet service providers to block the site. While existing copyright law gives the government the authority to shut down individual web pages, SOPA and PIPA would have given them the authority to shut down entire domains.
It is true that some of the campaigners against SOPA and PIPA exaggerated their effects, implying that the bills’ passage would result in instant China-style censorship. Representative Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) went so far as to claim that SOPA “would mean the end of the internet as we know it,” (“Rep. Lofgren: Copyright bill is ‘the end of the Internet’,” CNET News, 10/27/2011). However overstated these claims may have been, SOPA and PIPA did pose a real threat to civil liberties.
Proponents of SOPA and PIPA claimed that only foreign supporters of digital piracy would be affected. However, the laws would have given new powers to the U.S. government, with very little transparency. The U.S. government has a history of using laws like these to its own end. When the USA PATRIOT Act suspended habeas corpus [legal right that a prisoner has to be taken before a court] for suspected terrorists, supporters of the bill claimed the innocent had nothing to fear. Yet there have been numerous accounts of innocent people being detained in Guantanamo Bay. Similarly, the RICO Act, originally intended to combat organized crime, has been used to crack down on the labor movement.
In 2010, the Justice Department considered using intellectual property laws to prosecute Julian Assange for releasing copyrighted “trade secrets” on the whistle-blowing website WikiLeaks, (“WikiLeaks Prosecution Studied by Justice Department,” NY Times, 12/7/2010). Had SOPA and PIPA passed, they could have easily been used to block access to WikiLeaks or other political websites, using the same pretext. Moreover, they would have set a precedent that would open the gateway to further attacks on civil liberties.
The problems with SOPA and PIPA, however, ran deeper than their potential for abuse. The very premise of the legislation was enforcing “intellectual property,” the notion that information is the property of corporations. The threat to civil liberties comes not only from overzealous enforcement of intellectual property laws, but from the very notion of intellectual property itself. While SOPA and PIPA were defeated, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA), which gives the U.S. government more limited powers to crack down on digital piracy, remains in effect. At the same time that SOPA and PIPA were defeated, the FBI carried out a raid on the file sharing website MegaUpload under the auspices of the DMCA. This incident clearly showed that the defeat of SOPA and PIPA has failed to resolve concerns about civil liberties. In order to properly address these concerns, one needs to tackle the issue of intellectual property head on.
The internet has given people across the globe previously unprecedented access to information and the ability to communicate with individuals in almost any city center. But the increase in free sharing of information, music, books, films and other media has also begun to eat into the profits of the huge media companies of the world. In order to maintain their profits, these media companies have relied increasingly on intellectual property laws, which give them monopolies over the distribution of information. Infringing on this monopoly is deemed “digital piracy” and viewed under the law as a form of theft.
The biggest mover and shaker behind SOPA and PIPA was the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). The MPAA represents six big media companies: GE, Disney, Newscorp, TimeWarner, Viacom and CBS. These six companies own the vast majority of media and have bought the politicians in both parties with large donations. It is these corporations, as well as others in the music, television and sports industries, who gain the most from intellectual property laws, and it is their profits that SOPA and PIPA were written to defend.
Intellectual property laws were created with the intention of spurring creativity by allowing artists to use a temporary monopoly to make money from their work. But the primary effect of intellectual property laws has not been to allow artists to profit off of their own work; it has been to allow media conglomerates to profit off of their employees’ work. The artists are forced into restrictive long-term contracts that give corporations indefinite ownership of the artists’ work. Since the mid-twentieth century, intellectual property laws have been expanded so that corporations can continue to have ownership over intellectual property long after the artist’s death. Moreover, profit from this corporate ownership depends on making art more difficult to access. The net effect is to stifle creativity instead of spurring it.
Many individuals readily accept the problems with intellectual property but dismiss anti-copyright activism as unimportant. After all, having to pay too much for music seems like a trifling concern when people are starving. But the contradictions of intellectual property are not limited to the realm of art and entertainment. Another prominent supporter of SOPA and PIPA was the pharmaceutical giant Pfizer. Pfizer’s concern was not that people were using the internet to download movies without paying for them. It was that people were using the internet to purchase medicine from Canada. Unlike the United States, Canada has a single-payer health care system, a consequence of which is that Canadian pharmaceuticals are significantly more affordable than their American counterparts. For many working people, getting access to affordable medications is a matter of life and death.
Some opponents of SOPA and PIPA, such as Google and Facebook, have promoted the Online Protection and Enforcement of Digital Trade Act (OPEN Act) as a less extreme alternative. The OPEN Act rests on the same defense of intellectual property, even if it is less zealous in its enforcement. But intellectual property serves to enrich big business by fleecing working people. As such, it should be vigorously opposed.
Faced with a threat to civil liberties and a naked profit-grab on the part of big business, one would have expected that the labor movement would have been firmly against SOPA and PIPA. However, the AFL-CIO [US trade union confederation] actually came out in support of the legislation. The strongest support came from six unions representing actors, musicians, stagehands and other workers in the entertainment industry. These unions represent workers who are exploited by the very industries promoting the bill.
Paul Almeida, president of the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, dismissed civil liberties concerns, arguing:
"Freedom of speech is not the same as lawlessness on the Internet. There is no inconsistency between protecting an open Internet and safeguarding intellectual property. Protecting intellectual property is not the same as censorship; the First Amendment [part of the US constitution defending freedom of speech] does not protect stealing goods off trucks," (“Statement Before Committee on the Judiciary, United States House of Representatives,” November 16, 2011).
Almeida went on to describe digital piracy as “wage theft.” However, the real wage theft is being committed by the very corporations who devised SOPA and PIPA in the first place. While the executives of the huge media companies cynically use the cover of poor artists and producers to pull on the heartstrings, they simultaneously make enormous profits on the backs of those same artists.
The hypocrisy of the media companies regarding the rights of the artist was graphically demonstrated during the writers’ strike of 2007-2008. This strike was fought because the corporations in the Alliance of Motion Picture and Television Producers were collecting profits on online streaming and digital downloads of movies and TV shows while shortchanging the writers of said movies and TV shows. The same media conglomerates that were fleecing their workers four years ago are now claiming to represent their interests.
For a more extreme example of real wage theft, one can look at the rotten contracts forced upon non-unionized fiction writers at publishing companies like Full Fathom Five, which produced the Lorien Legacies series of young adult novels.
"The writer would be financially responsible for any legal action brought against the book but would not own its copyright. Full Fathom Five could use the writer’s name or a pseudonym without his or her permission, even if the writer was no longer involved with the series, and the company could substitute the writer’s full name for a pseudonym at any point in the future. The writer was forbidden from signing contracts that would “conflict” with the project; what that might be wasn’t specified. The writer would not have approval over his or her publicity, pictures, or biographical materials. There was a $50,000 penalty if the writer publicly admitted to working with Full Fathom Five without permission," (“Inside Full Fathom Five, James Frey’s Young-Adult-Novel Assembly Line,” New York Magazine, November 12, 2010).
Contracts like this are why workers in the entertainment industry need strong, militant unions. The unions need to fight for stronger contracts for their members and organize non-unionized artists, such as the writers at Full Fathom Five, so they can get stronger contracts as well. This means openly challenging the corporations’ use of copyrights against artists. Such a challenge would do far more good to artists than going after digital piracy.
Had the AFL-CIO come out against SOPA and PIPA, it could have exposed the media companies’ hypocrisy. This would have put unions in the entertainment industry in a better bargaining position for future strikes and contract negotiations. They could have staunchly defended the right of working people to have access to music, TV, movies and literature without being fleeced by large corporations. This would have won support for organized labor among broad sections of the working class.
Instead, by allying with their employers in support of SOPA and PIPA, the AFL-CIO damaged its reputation among anti-censorship and anti-copyright activists. It made the entire entertainment industry, from the CEO down to the stagehand, seem like one reactionary mass. This allowed the movement against SOPA and PIPA to be co-opted by other sections of big business that molded the campaign in their own image. Instead of a battle between working people and capitalists, we had a battle between the capitalists of Hollywood and the capitalists of Silicon Valley.
The protests against SOPA initially took the form of individuals writing letters to Congress and putting up anti-SOPA avatars on Facebook. On January 18, however, the campaign took a new turn with a 24-hour blackout of the internet, as entire websites replaced their usual content with anti-SOPA messages. This idea was initiated by Reddit, a subsidiary of the media conglomerate Advance Publications. It soon got the support of other websites, most notably Google and Wikipedia, the first and sixth most viewed websites on the internet.
The most important participants in the blackout were corporations such as Google, Craigslist and Reddit, as well as non-profit organizations such as Wikimedia Foundation and Mozilla. Thousands of smaller websites joined in. Some websites, such as Wikipedia, blacked out completely. Google only blocked out its logo, but it also used the blackout to promote an anti-SOPA petition that collected over 4.5 million signatures. Overall, lawmakers received “more than 14 million names—more than 10 million of them voters,” (“After an Online Firestorm, Congress Shelves Antipiracy Bills,” NY Times, 1/20/2012). These actions convinced enough politicians to withdraw their support for SOPA and PIPA, ultimately stopping the bills.
The internet blackout sent a signal to politicians that this was not business as usual. The disruptive effects of the blackout were very similar to those of a strike, to the point that many people referred to the event as an “internet strike.” In reality, it more closely resembled a strike of capital than it did a proper strike. The internet was not blacked out because workers withheld their labor, but because big businesses and privately owned non-profit organizations blocked their own content. Traditionally, a strike of capital is an unabashedly reactionary measure in which corporations withhold their supplies to economically cripple governments that carry out too many pro-worker measures. The internet blackout did not follow this pattern exactly, but it was still driven by corporations withdrawing their services to influence government policy. The internet blackout was complicated by two key factors: it was a conflict between two segments of big business, and it had the support of a large portion of the population.
While the entertainment industry is highly dependent on intellectual property laws to maintain its profits, other segments of big business don’t stand to gain as much. Internet companies that rely heavily on user-generated content, such as search engines and social networking sites, can be inconvenienced by overly strict enforcement of intellectual property laws because they have difficulty controlling the content that appears on their sites. This is why these companies mobilized against SOPA and PIPA. However, this does not mean that Google – a company known for tax evasion, collecting customers’ personal information, and cooperating with dictators in restricting the flow of information – has the public’s interests at heart. It is telling to observe how Google’s involvement altered the message of the anti-SOPA protests.
Google watered down the anti-corporate aspects of the campaign. Instead of attacking intellectual property laws and corporate profits, Google promoted the tame, business-friendly slogan of “End Piracy, Not Liberty.” In addition to the petition, Google circulated a letter attacking SOPA that was co-signed by eight other internet companies, including Facebook and Twitter. This letter stressed the need for “preserving the innovation and dynamism that has made the Internet such an important driver of economic growth and job creation.” It also defended the DMCA, promoted the OPEN Act, and assured that the signatories would “act in good faith to remove infringing content from their sites,” (http://boingboing.net/2011/11/16/internet-giants-place-full-pag.html). In this way, the campaign against SOPA and PIPA was transformed from a campaign against profit-hungry media monopolies into a campaign in support of profit-hungry internet monopolies.
A Free and Open Internet?
During the internet blackout, Wikipedia’s alternate front page warned that the legislation “could fatally damage the free and open internet.” Most of the popular opposition to SOPA and PIPA was based on this same desire for a free and open internet. To achieve this desire, however, far more will be required than stopping SOPA and PIPA or intellectual property laws in general.
The entire brouhaha over SOPA and PIPA demonstrated that politicians of both parties represent the interests of big business. The legislation was promoted by Democrats and Republicans working together. In fact, the Democrats – traditionally viewed as the more anti-business party – were more vehement in their support for the legislation than the Republicans. As long as politics is dominated by the two parties of big business, there will remain a threat of the government intervening to censor the internet in the interests of big business.
The threats to a free and open internet are not limited to direct government censorship. It can also come from the internet companies themselves. The day before the internet blackout, MPAA Chief Executive Chris Dodd attacked the event as “an abuse of power given the freedoms these companies enjoy in the marketplace today,” (“MPAA’s Chris Dodd takes aim at SOPA strike,” LA Times, 1/17/12). This is utter hypocrisy coming from Dodd, but it nonetheless points to legitimate dangers of leaving the internet in the hands of corporate monopolies and large, privately owned non-profits.
Under the rule of capitalism, control over the internet has been concentrated in the hands of a few big companies. Google currently holds 70% of the search engine market and, as of 2010, 75 percent of the page views in the U.S. come from 10 websites, (“The Internet’s Unholy Marriage to Capitalism,” Monthly Review, March 2011). The internet blackout showed the power these companies have to control the flow of information. Most people were willing to look over this because the companies were using their power to stop highly unpopular legislation. But these websites are just as capable of blacking out in defense of their less savory policies, such as tax evasion and the collection and sale of user data.
In contrast, the non-profit Wikipedia has given us a taste of what a free and open learning and information tool can look like even under capitalism. Although privately owned, most of Wikipedia’s content is generated collectively by people across the globe working, not for money, but for their own desire to share knowledge. The fact that something like this could not only exist but become one of the world’s leading sources of knowledge calls into question the entire capitalist conception of the profit motive and individual competition. However, corporations can edit Wikipedia articles and portray themselves in a more favorable light, without regard to objectivity. Moreover, in order to maintain its existence under capitalism, Wikipedia is increasingly dependent on wealthy benefactors such as Google, the Ford Foundation, and business magnate George Soros. Especially for a privately owned organization, this presents a dangerous conflict of interest.
To create a free and open internet it is certainly necessary to fight against bills like SOPA and PIPA that censor the internet. This also means opposing more moderate bills like the OPEN Act as well as existing anti-piracy legislation like DMCA. But it is also necessary to look beyond the threat of direct government censorship. This means fighting against the control of the internet by big business.
To keep big business from crushing even the beginnings of free and open media, it is required that we stop its stranglehold the economy. It is necessary to take the big corporations, including those that own our media, into public ownership under the democratic control of our communities. In order to ensure that free information is provided on the internet, control over the internet and advertising should be taken from big corporations and run by elected representatives of the community.
Rather than relying on intellectual property laws, a democratic socialist society would allow people free access to information while genuinely championing the rights of the artist. A workers’ state would guarantee decent wages and social security to artists, programmers and researchers. At the same time it would allow to use all research for example in medicine to be used immediately and internationally without being blocked by profit interests hiding behind intellectual property. It would offer arts and information free for all, released from the control of the rich and powerful. The capitalist system itself must be done away with to clear a space for the real open flow of information and discussion.