Skirmishes in the 'great sectarian war of the Internet'
A trio of editorials appeared in American national newspapers this week, reigniting the war of words over the protests against SOPA and PIPA earlier this year which saw an unprecedented blackout of Wikipedia and other websites inspire the defeat of the proposed anti-piracy legislation.
Keller: "Steal This Column"
The latest round of the debate was initiated by The New York Times' writer Bill Keller in an op-ed for the paper's February 6 edition, "Steal This Column", on February 6. The polarizing struggle over the bills had been widely characterised as a resounding albeit temporary defeat of efforts by established content industries to protect their business models (through muscular copyright enforcement) by an upsurge of opposition by internet users marshalled by a ragtag group of technology firms and their allies, Wikipedia prominent among them. Keller, whose recently concluded tenure as executive editor at the Times had been dominated by the threat to its future posed by the new media environment heralded by the internet, took sideswipes at the lofty rhetoric of web titans Google and Facebook, but sang the praises of Wikipedia:
||Among the wonders of the Internet, Wikipedia occupies a special place. From its birth 11 years ago it has professed, and has tried reasonably hard to practice, a kind of idealism that stands out in the vaguely, artificially countercultural ambience of Silicon Valley. ... Wikipedia, while it has grown something of a bureaucratic exoskeleton, remains at heart the most successful example of the public-service spirit of the wide-open Web: nonprofit, communitarian, comparatively transparent, free to use and copy, privacy-minded, neutral and civil.
Although he appeared to take a conciliatory tack in "the great sectarian war over the governing of the Internet" by critiquing the inadequacies of the defeated legislative efforts, Keller wrote vociferously of the "rampant online theft of songs, films, books and other content", arguing that "parasite Web sites should be treated with the same contempt as people who pick pockets or boost cars". He adopted the framing of the bills' supporters in referring to topic of the debate as "the attempt to curtail online piracy", and disclosed his surprise and dismay at seeing "Wikipedia’s founder and philosopher, Jimmy Wales" giving credence to the opposition in emerging as "a combatant for the tech industry".
Keller cast doubt on the OPEN Act praised as an alternative by Wales, describing it as fraught with loopholes and difficult to enforce, while calling on the music and film industries to engage with it and come to terms with the internet coalition. Wales' plea for "serious reform" rather than sectarian struggle was deemed by Keller to be at odds with the polarized state of American politics. He posited that the sense in which the volunteer encyclopaedia was "free" was distinct from the notion of "free" expression as laid out in the U.S. Constitution – one markedly infused with an emphasis on intellectual property and copyright protection.
Keller ended his piece by arguing that content industries and internet firms are bound in a co-dependent relationship, with the former dependent on the latter's capacity for channeling creative expression, and the internet – and Wikipedia specifically – dependent on the copyright-protected content for its own part. Commenters on the article were notably resistant to this conception, with many voicing skepticism about the notion that copyright still served its purported function of fostering creativity, and speculating as to whether the legacy content owners had more incentive to obstruct rather than embrace the new internet-enabled forms of innovative expression and collaboration. Keller's woes continued later in the week, when the newspaper was alleged by The Boston Phoenix to have flagrantly disregarded its copyright by hosting and linking to content belonging to its competitor on New York Times servers.
Sherman: "What Wikipedia Won't Tell You"
A screenshot of the landing page which confronted readers trying to access Wikipedia during the blackout protest
of January 18
The following day saw the paper run another op-ed on the issue, this time from Recording Industry Association of America head Cary Sherman. The article, "What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You", again strongly emphasised the piracy combating purpose of the defeated legislative efforts, but unlike Keller's piece, it explicitly denounced the opponents of the bills as having used the "dirty trick" of inflammatory misinformation to goad a credulous public into mass outrage. Furthermore, Sherman contested, in doing so internet-based organisations had transgressed by violating their users' expectation of neutrality:
||The hyperbolic mistruths, presented on the home pages of some of the world’s most popular Web sites, amounted to an abuse of trust and a misuse of power. When Wikipedia and Google purport to be neutral sources of information, but then exploit their stature to present information that is not only not neutral but affirmatively incomplete and misleading, they are duping their users into accepting as truth what are merely self-serving political declarations.
It was proof positive for Sherman of the self-serving hypocrisy of a culture which in loudly arguing for net neutrality had insisted on that the controllers of service providing platforms refrain from the temptation to misuse them for their own ends. Unlike the unscrupulous websites, the lobbyist pointedly noted, broadcast media such as television and radio networks did not use their access to an audience to push their point of view. Although he granted that some opponents of the bills were sincerely concerned with fighting piracy but alarmed by potential overreach of the legislation, Sherman went on to characterise other constituents of the protest alternately as dupes, proponents of piracy, or malevolent hackers bent on suppressing points of view contrary to their own. Sherman called on the obstructionist internet entities to partake in "respectful fact-based conversations" with their erstwhile opponents to address the "real and damaging" problem of piracy, concluding with a barbed reiteration of Keller's summation the day before: "We all share the goal of a safe and legal Internet. We need reason, not rhetoric, in discussing how to achieve it."
Techdirt's Mike Masnick
, who was sharply critical of Cary Sherman's New York Times
The reader response was predictably scathing, seeing Sherman accused of disingenuously dodging the real motivations for opposition to the bills – a fear of draconian, overreaching powers going far beyond the aim of sustaining creativity through copyright to imposing unreasonable and burdensome regulations that would have the effect of curtailing free expression, all orchestrated by powerful vested interests lobbying to have their way in an undemocratic behind-closed-doors process. Danny Goodwin of Search Engine Watch summarised the fallout as follows: "Readers, however, had no sympathy for Sherman or the RIAA. Overwhelmingly, readers supported the efforts of Google and Wikipedia to kill the bills." At Ars Technica, Nate Anderson accused Sherman, whom he recognised as having a "keen grasp of the issues", of engaging in "hand-waving demagoguery", and declared the "strangely angry" response to be so alienating and off-the-point that it would become a textbook case study of how not to respond to a controversy. The opponents of the bills, he argued, were unlikely to want to engage in reasoned discourse about the way forward with a self-pitying accusatory adversary.
In a column for Techdirt titled "RIAA Totally Out Of Touch: Lashes Out At Google, Wikipedia And Everyone Who Protested SOPA/PIPA", Mike Masnick was also damning of Sherman's editorial, contending that while the misinformation put forth by opponents of the bills was explainable by an errant focus on early drafts and the participation of a subset of the public prone to exaggeration and untruth, the misinformation propagated by the supporters was "the direct and planned out strategy of the MPAA, RIAA and US Chamber of Commerce to directly mislead Congress and the press by presenting information in a manner that was flat out false". Masnick concluded:
||Eleven paragraphs of pure rhetoric and misinformation... and then at the end, a plea for an end to such tactics? Sorry, but it might help if you actually started dumping the misinformation and nasty rhetoric yourself. Then feel free to join the rest of us on the open internet where these discussions are already ongoing.
Wales and Walsh: "We Are The Media, And So Are You"
Wikimedia Foundation trustees Jimmy Wales
and Kat Walsh
, who co-authored an editorial for the Washington Post
defending the position of Wikimedians – "the largest collection of creators in human history
On February 9, Wikimedia Foundation trustees Jimmy Wales and Kat Walsh gave voice to the dominant perspective of Wikimedians in an op-ed for the Washington Post, "We are the media, and so are you". It was notable by contrast to the week's two preceding editorials in that the authors resisted the framing of the debate as a battle between the competing worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, vested interests at war to protect their narrow goals by whatever means at their disposal. Rather, Wales and Walsh, proposed, the defeat of SOPA/PIPA represented an awakening of political consciousness on the part of millions of regular internet users who had hitherto been "all but invisible to Congress". Defying charges that the upswell of protest was a calculated instigation by deep-pocketed technology firms and their lobbyists – "about as organic as the masses of North Koreans crying in the streets upon hearing of Kim Jong Il’s death" (PCC Associates), Wales and Walsh distanced themselves and this emergent activist movement from the large technology companies, whom they characterised as just another instantiation of rising commercial powers enmeshing themselves in the murky world of legislation for their shareholders' benefit. Wikipedia, a donation-funded mass movement of ordinary people, was an entirely different entity, they conjectured:
||Wikipedia is not opposed to the rights of creators — we have the largest collection of creators in human history. The effort that went into building Wikipedia could have created shelves full of albums or near-endless nights of movies. Instead it’s providing unrestricted access to the world’s knowledge. Protecting our rights as creators means ensuring that we can build our encyclopedias, photographs, videos, Web sites, charities and businesses without the fear that they all will be taken away from us without due process. It means protecting our ability to speak freely, without being vulnerable to poorly drafted laws that leave our fate to a law enforcement body that has no oversight and no appeal process. It means protecting the legal infrastructure that allowed our sharing of knowledge and creativity to flourish, and protecting our ability to do so on technical infrastructure that allows for security and privacy for all Internet users.
The Wikimedia movement is uninterested in entering a phase of permanent advocacy, they argued, but what the debates had changed is that they forced the acknowledgement that the projects' existence was inherently political, and demanded defence on those grounds. The Wikimedia movement could no longer stand on the sidelines while organisations such as Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation fought to protect the environment that facilitated its existence, the trustees argued; the shifting cultural and political landscape meant that the institutions of Congress and copyright, designed for times now past in which small number of industrial titans controlled the dissemination of culture and information, required rethinking in this age of technologically-enabled mass expression. The piece concluded with a forceful reframing of the terms of debate:
||[W]e are the media industry. We are the creators. We are the innovators. The whole world benefits from our work. That work, and our ability to do it, is worth protecting for everyone.
In the spirit of this distributed media age, the privilege of editorials need not remain the sole domain of the elite thoughtleaders. The Signpost is soliciting compelling, thoughtful and provocative opinion essays of all perspectives: if you think you could have something worthy of attention and debate to write on this or another issue of critical relevance to the reading community, consider proposing it at our dedicated desk or by email to wikipediasignpostgmail.com