Blackout Wednesday: The Time Has Come  

Posted by Big Gav in , ,

There is plenty of protest on the web about US congress plans to censor the internet (they aren’t the only control freaks who want to do this of course - the Australian government has been every bit as bad on this issue, as have many others, from China to Iran). The Daily Reckoning has but one example of the torrent of complaint about this (pardon the pun) - Blackout Wednesday: The Time Has Come.

The blackout is a choice, and a brilliant one, made by founder Jimmy Wales in consultation with the whole Wikipedia community. It is a protest, a statement, a symbolic warning to the world of what can happen if governments attack the free flow of information.

The online protest is directed, in particular, against two bills roiling around Congress right now, called SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate. Early versions have been tabled. The Obama administration has said that it opposes the current versions, but the opposition was weak and suspiciously nuanced.

People who are digitally aware and politically savvy know that this is only round one. The attempt by governments to block information flows on the Web will continue in new and different bills and regulations. No new laws are even necessary; government possesses the power now to crush the information age on a bureaucratic whim.

In fact, this goes on every day. That's because governments everywhere, in all times and places, want to control information and will use all their power to do it. It is also because the legal framework that rules how information is produced and distributed is fundamentally corrupted by the fraudulent notion of "intellectual property," which, if consistently enforced, would put an end to the Internet as we know it...

- Just this past week, a judge ruled that a 23-year-old British college student can be extradited to the US for a 10-year prison sentence, all for linking to other servers that illicitly host copyrighted content;

- Late last year, US officials shut down 150 domains without hearings or trials on grounds that they were suspected of selling goods that violate trademark law. It was done on "Cyber Monday" for a reason: It was an announcement to the digital world that government is in charge;

- In the spring of last year, the FBI arbitrarily shut down every online poker domain they could find and seized the bank accounts of some of the largest and smartest people who play online poker - and all of this happened before the recent announcement that online poker is being re-legalised;

- Earlier in the year, the Department of Homeland Security seized 84,000 domains and put up an announcement that each was trafficking in child porn. Problem: It was all a mistake. Not one was actually guilty. To date, there has been no explanation of how this could have happened

- In 2010, the feds seized some 73,000 domains for the crime of linking to content that was said to be distributed illegally in violation of copyright.

Already, the damage of this sort of thing is enormous. Ten years ago, the Internet represented liberation, a new frontier of innovation, commerce, opinion sharing and spontaneous organising. Today, more and more people are consumed by fear. Bloggers are unclear about what existing law does or does not allow. No one knows for sure how to define "fair use." The deepest pockets are winning case after case. Faced with this uncertainty, many are choosing less over more content - which is exactly what the government and private monopolists want.

The Wikipedia protest is a way of saying: If this kind of thing continues and ends up institutionalised in new legislation, there will be no more Wikipedia, which is the No. 1 content-rich site on the Web and the main way people learn today (how far we've come from the debunking that was common only five years ago).

And this is just one example. Individual blogs would only contain government-approved content. Search engines would only produce only government-approved sites. Digital entrepreneurship would be suffocated by fears of threats, confiscations and jails. It is hard to see how even Facebook and Twitter could survive.

It is just marvellous that Wikipedia has taken this bold direction, and it is only possible because of the unique nature of the media in question. Many large businesses during the 1930s tried their best to protest New Deal price controls. But they could hardly shut down their giant stores. The revenue loss would have been devastating, and the victims would have been the employees. So in the end, the private sector was forced to submit to the controls. It was the same in the 1970s with wage and price controls. How could the merchants resist?

But digital enterprises are in a different position entirely. They can vanish with a few clicks, giving the world a conjectural look at what happens when the state attacks the lifeblood of innovation and progress. Small changes in the law can have a gigantic effect. Just as one click can shut down this site, one law can do the same.

It is not only Wikipedia. Others are doing the same. WordPress, the open-source platform that powers nearly a quarter of new websites and has the most-popular content management system on the Web, has also stepped out in front with a call for action: "Normally, we stay away from... politics here at the official WordPress project...Today, I'm breaking our no-politics rule...How would you feel if the Web stopped being so free and independent? I'm concerned - freaked right the heck out about the bills that threaten to do this, and as a participant in one of the biggest changes in modern history, you should be, too."

There are many such examples. And even if successful, it is not enough. With or without SOPA, digital freedom is under attack. For example, ICANN, the gateway for all domain registration, is now requiring a verified official identity, supplied by government, for domain ownership. This change sets the stage for continuing shutdowns and strangulation.

The struggle is intensifying, and the sides are very clear: It is the government and old-line media companies that depend on the state's laws versus everyone else. Everyone else consists of the independently active, privately owned global society that lives and thrives in the digital age. The astonishing innovations of this age have taught an entire generation about the miraculous power of information generation and delivery, about the capabilities embedded in the spontaneous actions of individuals, about the capacity of people around the world to generate order and progress through cooperation and exchange.

2 comments

That's one of two reasons I love this hung parliament (the other being a carbon tax, finally). Notice how this issue has completely disappeared, since the government needed Andrew Wilkie? Now if only we could find some way of keeping it gone after the next election...

Yeah - the hung parliament is the best possible outcome for an election (as long as its greens and moderate independents holding the balance of power of course)...

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