BitTorrent ethics: Punishing piracy or criminalizing sharing?
If you live in a densely populated modern city, there is a strong chance that wireless network transmissions that are in breach of copyright law could be around you at this very moment.
The decentralized network architecture known as peer-to-peer (P2P) communications allows files of all kinds to be shared over the internet with other users without monetary exchange, and millions utilize this technology on daily basis. To some, this kind of exchange represents a new paradigm shift in sharing arts and culture that has the potential to empower new content producers who would have otherwise been consumers, while giving rise to a new decentralized economic model. To those who have a stake in maintaining the pre-eminence of copyright laws over the means of distribution, the millions who utilize these new habits of consumption are likened to renegade sea-bandits in arms – pirates – and they need to be stopped.
Most file-sharing is utilized through BitTorrent, and involves a host website that supports an index of .torrent files that can be downloaded in separate client applications. The content itself is not stored on a single centralized hard drive, but rests on the individual hard drives of millions of users who share their files through a P2P network, making file-sharing very difficult to regulate. The kinds of files that are shared range from films and music to software and e-books. All of it is done without monetary exchange, just as one would share the same kind of content with a friend. Much like the printing press, cassette recorders, VCRs, cable television, mp3 players and the like, the film studios of Hollywood and the recording industry view such innovations as an existential threat to their industries – and file-sharing has become the present day object of a witch-hunt led by the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) and its counterpart, the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA).
Before the digital age, information was exchanged through bulky bundles of paper and plastic discs. The internet was originally developed as a means to circumvent these physical limitations by creating a decentralized network that would allow users to connect to each other irrespective of their physical location. From the perspective of the file-sharer, the internet is functioning exactly as it was intended to. For the intellectual property industries that are bent on punishing offenders of copyright law (people who exchange copyrighted files), the internet cannot be allowed to exist as it does now. As a result of massive lobbying efforts, trends are emerging among lawmakers to develop far-reaching regulations to govern the internet and inalterably change the way it operates. The bottom line is that industries and the corporations that control them want to pass regulation to give the private sector sweeping central authority over the internet and its content under the guise of protecting intellectual property rights, while vastly expanding the duration of existing copyrights.
Photo by Steve Rhodes / flickr.com
The unregulated internet is arguably the most representative and democratic feature of industrial societies, and the ideology of ‘copyright fundamentalism’ threatens this medium of exchange. Because file-sharing is done through private means and decentralized networks, copyright law cannot be enforced without violating the privacy of individual users through mass surveillance that would monitor sharing habits. What could the regulated Internet 2.0 look like? Based on the fine print of bills that have failed to become law, a few ideas come to mind. Websites and blogs can be taken down without court order over the most marginal cases of copyright infringement; file-sharers would have their bandwidth cut for using P2P and be subject to pay steep fines; invasive hard drive searches by police and immigration officials at airports, and more. The end-game for corporate lobbyists is to persuade governments to deregulate and liberalize markets and economic space while regulating communication mediums like the internet to protect the deregulation of the economic space that protects corporate monopoly profits. It’s liberty for the markets. Not for you.