Proprietary Content: A Force for Totalitarianism

Extrapolating from the totalitarian drift of government copyright policy to a future society under complete information lockdown is a common theme in speculative fiction by free culture advocates. The classic example, of course, is Richard Stallman’s “The Right to Read”  (“… you could go to prison for many years for letting someone else read your books”). The regime of ubiquitous DRM, electronic surveillance and “zero tolerance” for copyright violations, in the public schools of Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother, is a near-future scenario of a society well on the way to Stallman’s lockdown.

The trends that inspire such fiction are very real, and exist for objective material reasons. With returns on capital investment in physical production stagnant in recent decades, global corporations have turned to extracting rents on information as their main source of profit. The dominant players in the world economy are all in industries heavily reliant on “intellectual property”: biotech, software, entertainment, pharma, and electronics.

But because of copyright enforcement problems presented by digital technology, the “cognitive capitalism” model requires increasing levels of authoritarianism — DRM, anti-circumvention legislation, DMCA takedown notices and mass lawsuits — to stay tenable. Johan Soderberg, in Hacking Capitalism: The Free and Open Source Software Movement, compares the digital copyright lockdown that the Western corporate ruling class depends on to the lockdown of photocopiers and fax machines that protected the power of the old Soviet nomenklatura (it’s not by accident, comrade, that the KGB used to refer to samizdat distributors as “pirates.”).

And the totalitarian proclivities of the proprietary content industries are very real. In the recent past, for example, global uplifter Bono mentioned Communist China’s suppression of online dissent as an encouraging example of governnment’s ability to combat piracy if it would just take the gloves off. Danish anti-piracy activist Johan Schluter gushed: “Child pornography is great …. It is great because politicians understand child pornography. By playing that card, we can get them to act, and start blocking sites. And once they have done that, we can get them to start blocking file sharing sites.”

Now the big proprietary content folks are cozying up directly to authoritarian states and encouraging the suppression of dissent in order to promote their own interests as a side effect.

For example, Microsoft has worked hand-in-glove with the Russian government’s anti-piracy raids — even though the only people prosecuted for “piracy” tend to be those “pirates” who are also political dissidents. In fact, Microsoft has supported such raids — and its lawyers have gone the extra mile in providing legal assistance to prosecutors — even in cases where hard drives contained no pirated material and authorities had no probable cause for believing they did. The Microsoft cockroaches finally backed off from their aid and comfort to the Russian police state when a New York Times article exposed them to the light of day (Clifford Levy, “Russia Uses Microsoft to Suppress Dissent,” September 12).

And the MPAA is encouraging governments to ratify the new ACTA treaty (a global version of the DMCA) by suggesting that it could be used to shut down dissident websites like Wikileaks. Further, as Mike Masnick suggests, using ACTA to suppress a political site like Wikileaks is a precedent for Joe Biden and his Hollywood goon squad at the FBI: What could be done to Wikileaks can be done to file-sharing sites (“MPAA Wants to know if ACTA Can Be Used to Block Wikileaks?” Techdirt, September 15).

The good news is that, with a global server network mirroring Wikileaks in many countries, shutting it down is easier said than done. And it’s a safe bet that more and more file-sharing sites will follow Julian Assange’s example in creating similar insurance policies for themselves.

It’s a good thing the Copyright Nazis are so incompetent at actually implementing their grand designs, because proprietary content industries are one of the leading political forces for totalitarianism in our time.

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