Chris Barton 's Opinion

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton: Shutting down the internet, what's at stake?

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The threat of internet piracy on corporate interests has seen the proposal of major restrictions on internet use. Shutting down this great democratic force of society could have major implications says Chris Barton. Photo / Thinkstock
The threat of internet piracy on corporate interests has seen the proposal of major restrictions on internet use. Shutting down this great democratic force of society could have major implications says Chris Barton. Photo / Thinkstock

Megaupload down. Another casualty in the war that never ends. Knock one over, another pops up. It's been like this since the beginning when Napster made file sharing a breeze and turned the music industry inside out. Other fighters and casualties have followed - Grokster, Limewire, Gnutella, OpenNap, KaZaA, Morpheus, WinMX, FastTrack, eMule. Mininova, the Pirate Bay among them.

They all say: "We will outlast and outplay. We are invincible - it's the internet stupid." The movie and recording industry responds: It's theft. We will hunt you down until the end of time." Futile as it is, the battle continues, neither side giving an inch: an ideological war of wills born in America fought worldwide by legions of users with a propensity to share stuff with their friends; a battle of freedom versus the free market; a war against old-world corporate American imperialism.

Pre-internet corporate American imperialism wasn't all bad. My own experience with the beast many years ago in the form of PC World magazine was quite good. We had corporate values, a charismatic leader and even share options.

Our mission was to bring information about information technology to every corner of the globe. In its heyday there were PC Worlds colonising new frontiers everywhere - from China to Russia to New Zealand. What was good about this sort of imperialism was that it adapted to local conditions - each PC World had its own distinctive regional flavour reflecting its market.

What's bad about the imperialism behind the Megaupload shutdown is that it seeks to impose corporate American will on everyone - riding roughshod over countries' sovereignty. A United States that prioritises intellectual-property rights over the right to free expression. Nowhere was this more evident than in the proposed Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA) legislation.

Following widespread internet protests both have been stopped in their tracks. But the draconian proposals, which if implemented would have changed the open structure of the internet and forced internet service providers to block access to websites that "enabled" pirated content, shows just how far corporate America is prepared to go. And how uncompromising it is.

Old corporate America says if the internet has to be shut down to fix this problem, then that's what must be done. In effect that's what SOPA would have attempted - to shut down fair exchange on the net, removing infringing www-dot web addresses from view and prohibiting search engines and other information locators like Twitter from displaying hyperlinks.

It's the sort of thing oppressive, authoritarian regimes like China and some Middle East countries already do. The proposal was arrogant, mad and unworkable, not to mention a serious threat to the democratic ideal of free speech. That's disturbing enough. Worse is how such laws keep wending their way into legislative systems all around the world - including our own.

Much of the sheer beauty of the internet is that it's an open system. No one decides who can join and no one controls how it's run - making it the greatest democratic force the world has ever seen. What's really odd about the current situation is that democracies all over, including ours, and America - the so called champion of the free world - are being duped by corporate interests to pass totalitarian restrictions on internet use.

The shut-the-net-down lobby takes many forms and finds easy pickings in net-ignorant politicians who will kowtow to their wishes.

Perhaps the most insidious are free trade agreements where the devil is in the detail and invariably leads to net restrictions. A recent example is the Trans-Pacific Partnership which is full of such pitfalls, and which, despite Jane Kelsey's tireless highlighting appears to be proceeding full steam ahead.

This is not to say that copyright - the vexed issue behind this ongoing war - is something to be ignored. What's needed now is a pause to think about what's at stake and discuss options. There are plenty of ways the matter can be resolved without draconian regulation.

But to have that conversation is going to require old world corporate America to accept the reality of a digital world. Legal means for downloading copyrighted movies - like iTunes has done for music - would be a good place to start. So too would revisiting the length of copyright before it reverts to the public domain. Remembering what the founding fathers of the Constitution had in mind when they thought about the issue - picking 14 years as a reasonable length of time - would be a useful guide for the way forward too.

It's important also that government legislators don't get too exercised by the mountains of research media companies have funded to argue that more severe online enforcement is necessary. As Rob Fischer points out one consultancy report published a year ago noted the top three "piracy" websites-rapidshare.com, megavideo.com, and megaupload.com, had over 21 billion visits each year, or about 60 million views a day. The same report estimated that, all told, piracy accounts for nearly 25 percent of online traffic, whereas more recent presentations by the Motion Picture Association of America have put the number closer to 50 percent.

Who is correct? Corporate estimates will have us believe online piracy cost the media industry somewhere between $US30 billion and $US75 billion in 2008, but such figures rely on a lot of extrapolation, not to mention exaggeration. They also don't paint the complete picture. Not all downloaders are buyers. Some downloaders become buyers. Many artists are earning more now than they ever did before file sharing. Many downloaders come from the corporate world. Not all file sharing sites are pirates. Dropbox for example - widely used for collaborative work and the sharing of files - is identical in functionality to Megaupload and shows that filelockers can be used for entirely legitimate purposes.

If peace is ever to break out in this ongoing war, the first thing lawmakers need to understand is how the internet works. That if we wanted to we could count all traffic going in and out of a country and apportion fair shares to copyright holders - especially the actual creators. But that would require some sort of international treaty or convention. No sign of that. Meanwhile the battles continue.

Chris Barton

Technology columnist for the NZ Herald

Chris Barton is a freelance writer with 28 years experience in newspapers and magazines. He's been writing about technology since 1986, was the founding editor of New Zealand PC World and has won numerous media awards, including, in 2009, journalism's top prize, the Wolfson Press Fellowship to Cambridge. He has a Master of Architecture, teaches part time at the Auckland School of Architecture and is an architecture critic, winning, in 2014, the Canon Media Awards Reviewer of the Year.

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