May 20, 2011

Cyberspace freedom … except where they upset the copyright industry

The Obama Administration's Cyberspace strategy places heavy emphasis on freedom, but in practice it's only as much freedom as the copyright industry wants

Bernard Keane — Politics editor

Bernard Keane

Politics editor

This week the Obama administration released its International Strategy for Cyberspace policy, the main media message for which seemed to be that the US reserved the right to respond to cyber attacks with real-world attacks if necessary. That was more a lurid footnote to the main message of the document, which is a description of how the US professes to see the internet and its future, and the three principles on which its own role online will be based: fundamental freedoms, privacy and free flow of information. The language for each of the three principles was uplifting -- even inspirational:
  • on fundamental freedoms: "among these civil liberties, recognised internationally as 'fundamental freedoms', the ability to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any medium and regardless of frontiers has never been more relevant";
  • on privacy: "as citizens increasingly engage via the internet in their public and private lives, they have expectations for privacy: individuals should be able to understand how their personal data may be used, and be confident that it will be handled fairly"
  • on free flow of information: "states do not, and should not have to choose between the free flow of information and the security of their networks ... we see other approaches -- such as national-level filters and firewalls -- as providing only an illusion of security while hampering the effectiveness and growth of the internet as an open, interoperable, secure, and reliable medium of exchange."
As Crikey has observed before when Hillary Clinton has bravely raised the standard of net freedom, the hypocrisy of the Obama administration on such matters is quite profound, from its serial harassment of net activist Jacob Appelbaum to the involvement of the US Department of Justice in the development of a plan for an illegal attack on WikiLeaks and its supporters and its secretive campaign to force Twitter, Google and Facebook to reveal private information about WikiLeaks supporters. The principles espoused in the strategy document clash fundamentally with the enthusiasm of the Obama administration -- mirroring that of the Bush administration -- to act as the enforcement arm of the US copyright industry. The primary international mechanism for this is to secretly impose draconian copyright-based provisions on internet users and ISPs via trade treaty, a ploy that was only partially successful under the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement but which has been revived in current negotiations with Australia and other countries in the "Trans-Pacific Partnership". The attitude of the Obama Administration to the "PROTECT IP" bill before Congress will also be instructive. This bipartisan bill replaced last year's COICA Bill but significantly widened its ambit. The Bill would mandate an internet filter for the United States by requiring ISPs to block the DNS for sites alleged to be engaged in "infringing" activities by the copyright industry. Google chairman Eric Schmidt lashed the bill on Wednesday:
"I would be very, very careful if I were a government about arbitrarily [implementing] simple solutions to complex problems ... So, 'let’s whack off the DNS'. OK, that seems like an appealing solution but it sets a very bad precedent because now another country will say ‘I don’t like free speech so I’ll whack off all those DNSs’ -- that country would be China."
Schmidt's comment goes to the heart of the hypocrisy of an administration that -- like its predecessors -- rhetorically cheers freedom except when it may affect US commercial and strategic interests, providing the pseudo-justification for countries such as China to undertake even more aggressive censorship. With nice timing, this week also saw the release of major new copyright review commissioned by UK Prime Minister David Cameron which sharply criticised the claims made by the copyright industry about the economic impact of so-called piracy. As Crikey showed earlier this year, the local vassals of the copyright industry regularly churn out reports that make wild claims about piracy that are inconsistent, lack evidence or have no assessable methodology. The UK report, by British academic and former communications industry regulator Ian Hargreaves, complained:
"The review team has examined numerous studies ... and a supporting paper looks at the methodological strengths and weaknesses of this work. With the exception of the Industry Canada study, we have either not been able to examine the methodology of the studies or, where we have, we have discovered problems with the methodology. Consequently, we have not found either a figure for the prevalence and impact of piracy worldwide or for the UK in which we can place our confidence."
Hargreaves also noted that American regulators had found the same thing. The report urged the UK government "to ensure that in future, policy on intellectual property issues is constructed on the basis of evidence, rather than weight of lobbying." Good advice that, in this area more than most others, is unlikely to be taken.

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6 thoughts on “Cyberspace freedom … except where they upset the copyright industry

  1. Chris Sanderson

    Hi Bernard, I recall reading somewhere that the US made a strategic decision to replace the income their elite lost the nation by transfering manufacturing to less labour expensive countries, by re-gaining it from inventing things (or just identifying useful DNA) and then making sure they own the copyright.

    I imagine they are going continue to as agressive and ruthless about defending that income as they are about doing the same for continued access to oil.

  2. Meski

    @Chris: Copyright trolling, the term for what you’re suggesting the US are proposing, is unlikely to be a workable business model. It isn’t working for the entertainment industry at all well.

  3. Meski

    To elaborate on where the entertainment industry are doing this, they own copyright on many books/music/movies that they cannot be bothered producing any more. That’s where it falls under the classic definition of copyright trolling.

  4. Blergh

    What’s the go with the Aussie Gov’t at the moment? Waiting for the iiNet/AFACT High Court appeal or have there been indications between the lines in statements made publicly?

  5. drsmithy

    The fundamental problem is Copyright itself, which has long since moved from a reasonable proposition and needs to be completely restructured, if not abolished.

  6. nicolino

    Imperial Washington has made its proclamation and we, of course, will obey. Free Trade Agreement! What a joke.

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