Human Rights Trump Copyrights

I wrote recently about the “Typhoid Mary” of internet restriction laws, observing how Wikileaks has confirmed that a wing of the US Government – the US Trade representative (USTR) – has been systematically bullying European and other world governments. The goal has been to use threats against their other trade activities to force them to introduce laws that summarily restrict the freedom of their citizens to use the Internet – without judicial involvement, if possible. You know the sort of thing. “Nice export industry you have there for your agricultural produce. It would be a shame if anything happened to it. You can make sure it doesn’t if you legislate to prevent your citizens harming our noble media industries.” Kipling wrote about it eloquently, but people are still paying the protection racket. The bullying is distasteful, but it may be that you’ve not considered what’s really wrong with the laws themselves.

Bad Law

What is wrong with these laws? The place to start is the motivations of the powerful US-based multinational companies who seek to protect their businesses against the inevitable gravity of the three technology laws. It’s not just that companies who built their business by freely using the contents of our collective cultural commons now want to strangle it (although they hypocritically do want that). It’s not just that those same companies want their faltering business models shored-up by chilling effects, framing the celebration by their customers of the culture they are trying to create as akin to murder, rape and theft (“piracy”). It’s not even that the new laws give a bunch of businesses who have shown themselves to have severely asymmetric morals the power to simply accuse without proof to get results.

Cultural Conduit

No, the problem is much deeper than some of the campaigns against Internet restrictions laws designed around the idea of “Guilt Upon Accusation” would suggest. Our society has changed fundamentally in the last decade. The emergence of the world-wide web pushed the Internet from research curiosity into endemic facility, present in every office, then every home and now every pocket.

It is now the medium for culture, for education, for finance, for politics, for engagement with government services. We will increasingly see the Internet be the only way things can be done – it’s already getting close to that way in some areas (airline bookings, tax filings, event tickets all being easy examples).

Access to the Internet is no longer the casual frippery that these laws believe. It is already integral to modern life. As a Guardian article suggests, it is becoming a fundamental part of every aspect of our lives, as basic as electricity, telephones or pavements, the primary conduit for democracy, commerce, culture and social interaction. It is gradually being recognised as a basic right and enshrined in law. Removing access to it upon accusation of a copyright infringement, even of mass copyright infringement, is disproportionate as well as unjust, threatening the well-being of more than just the supposed target.

Disproportionate Punishment

What crime do you have to commit where you live to be forbidden use of electricity (not just disconnected)? To be forbidden use of a phone? To be forbidden to walk on the streets? Yes, the lack of due process in these bad laws promoted covertly by USTR is an enormous worry, but much more of a concern is its calculation that the infringement of a copyright justifies the removal of the main conduit of social engagement from a citizen. Removal of basic rights is a matter of criminal not civil law so moves to make “internet bans” easy are an unacceptable expansion into criminal law for something that was never even meant to affect ordinary citizens in civil law.

This is not a matter for a “voluntary code of conduct” either. As use of the Internet becomes more complex and more fundamental, it’s becoming clear that groups like the Internet Watch Foundation – a group set up by ISPs so they wouldn’t be regulated over every politician’s excuse for bad legislation, “protecting children” – is harmful to us all, cracking small nuts with pile drivers and lacking transparency and accountability. Development of a voluntary code of conduct so citizens rights can be repeatably infringed in support of media business models is as unacceptable as a hard law because it still agrees that citizen access to the internet is worth less than media business models. On the contrary, if we need new laws at all, they should be to prevent businesses from terminating service without a court order.

Our Rights Are Worth More Than Their Copyrights

That’s why internet punishment laws have to be resisted worldwide and why the media lobby needs to wise up and pipe down. We may not have reached a point where Internet access is an essential right, but it’s too close now for us to tolerate its abridgement for any reason or set a precedent we then have to argue to undo. “Three-Strikes” and other Internet restriction laws are not unjust simply because they allow punishment upon accusation. They also fail to recognise that access to the Internet is becoming a fundamental right by equating its removal with a real but trivial civil offence. Infringing copyright is not something to be condoned, but there is no sense in which anyone’s copyrights are more valuable than our 21st century human rights. Our rights are worth more than their copyrights.

[First published in ComputerWorldUK on December 28, 2010]

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