Information Landmine

"The Americans keep telling us how successful their system is. Then they remind us not to stray too far from our hotel at night." - An un-named EU trade representative quoted during international trade talks in Denver, Colorado, 1997.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008


Mute magazine has a review of Clay Shirky's new book, Here Comes Everybody. It's another of those books about why the internet changes everything and leads to collaboration and citizen journalism and enhanced democracy and all kinds of wholesome fruity goodness. Unreformed liberal that I am, I tend to be a bit of a sucker for claims like that, and so I was quite interested to read it. Felix Stalder, the reviewer, does make a quite startling point, though: "Tussle over copyright? Reading Shirky, you wouldn't know there is one. This is probably the most glaring absence. Number of entries for copyright in the index of the book? 0!"

For those unfamiliar with debates about internet technologies, this is kind of like trying to explain the boom in the US economy in the early forties without reference to the Second World War. I exaggerate, but you get the picture - so much of the develpment of Web 2.0 applications has been shaped by the copyright-holder vs. filesharer arms race (my favourite example is the reincarnation of Kazaa in Skype, but it's everywhere you look) that trying to cut it out the picture must make for an incredibly artiticial book.

Stalder puts this down to Shirky's making his living off consulting contracts:

Of course, Shirky knows about it, so the omission must be deliberate. To me, this is an indication of how constrained discourse has become, particularly in the US and particularly for the set of activist academics who like to think of themselves as progressives yet covet their positions as consultants to conservative business and government. To them, p2p poses an ugly challenge. It is clearly one of the most potent mass movements driving the deep transformation of the media industry and contributing considerably to the fabled increase in individuals' expressive capacities. But coming out against file sharing makes you sound like a dork on the payroll of the mafia. Very unprogressive. Yet, the media conglomerates and their surrogates have succeeded in establishing such a climate of copyright maximalism that even appearing in favour of copyright infringement removes you from the mainstream. Thus, if you want to play it both ways – be part of the revolution and earn money as a consultant – you better avoid the whole issue. That, at least, would explain why neither Shirky nor anyone else in the US mainstream even dares to talk about file sharing anymore, with the exception of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Self-censorship at work.

This seems fair enough as an explanation for Shirky's glaring ommission, but as a statement against the general "US Mainstream" I think it's a bit pessimistic. It depends how you want to define "mainstream" of course, but most of the usual suspects of US law professors and technology policy wonks seem to me to be making about the same noises as they always did. Jonathan Zittrain, who's just written the other big Wired crowd, "Ooohhh, look at the internet" book of the summer, doesn't seem too worried about pissing off copyright holders. I've yet to read my copy of The Future of the Internet and How to Stop It, but I understand the basic argument to be that if we adopt the policies being advocated by Big Copyright, we're going to spoil the party for everyone. Certainly copyright seems to feature fairly prominently in his index.

It might be the case that everyone talks less about filesharing than they used to, but that seems to me to be because the big court cases are over, and it's all settled into a pretty staied dynamic of filesharers-invent-new-technology/copyright-holders-go-after-them-tooth-and-claw-sweeping-aside-useful-technological-innovations-and-privacy-in-the-process/filesharers-switch-to-new-technology. The battle over the legalisty of filesharing having been lost, people have moved on to looking at some of the collaterel damage. Cory Doctorow (also, it should be noted, a pretty mainstream figure in the technology debate, and a guy who probably makes a non-trivial amount from consultancy) has a column in the Guardian out today, expressing sentiments to that effect:

This month's announcement of a back-room deal between ISPs (internet service providers) and the big record companies to spy on suspected copyright infringers and reduce the quality of their internet connections is just the latest paragraph in the record industry's long, self-pitying suicide note, and it's left me wishing they'd just pull the trigger already and stop beating their chests and telling us all how unfair it all is.
Not much hedging for consultancy contracts going on there.


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