Interesting story on the wire yesterday concerning an alleged plot by al-Qaeda operatives “to bring down the internet in Britain”.
Evidence from last year’s raids on terrorist suspects is said to have revealed plans to attack “a high-security internet ‘hub’ in London”, which “houses the channel through which almost every bit of information on the internet passes in or out of Britain.”
Regardless of the substance of the alleged plot, the story is a useful reminder that the internet actually exists in physical form. The talk of “cyberspace” that we all indulge in – as if the information we use existed in some parallel non-physical dimension – is just metaphor; the reality is a large number of machines with electrons flowing within and between them.
That realisation in turn should serve to remind us of what’s at stake in debates about intellectual “property”. The giant corporations that claim “ownership” of software, music, movies and the like are not trying to own “ideas” in some abstract sense: they’re arguing for ownership of actual physical things.
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But unlike ordinary cases of property, what they want to own are things you’ve already paid for: the physical stuff your CDs are made of, and the electrons on your computer. They want to make you pay again, and again, each time you share them with someone else or use them in different ways.
No-one would give any credence to a manufacturer of, say, cricket bats who wanted a fresh payment for every child who played with the same bat. Yet the likes of Sony and Microsoft have got just such a racket going, and are allowed to get away with their crazy vocabulary of “property”, “theft” and “piracy”.
Maybe there have to be special privileges to give incentives to creators of intellectual products, although I’m far from convinced. But let’s not construe that as “property” – otherwise you’re giving away ownership of your own hardware and electrons, and ultimately the very physical neurons firing inside your head.