The Plutocracy of Copyright Holders

The Plutocracy of Copyright Holders

The analogy that attacking piracy is a game of whac-a-mole appears to be quite a good one. Any effects to reduce piracy will be countered with new means of circumvention—if you hit a mole it reappears somewhere else.

A good example is the United Kingdom’s blocking of torrent sites, which simple led to a proliferation of proxies. However, while the optimistic analogy always sees an unhurt mole appearing elsewhere, it forgets that each blow and attempt to limit piracy is damaging something else—the right to privacy, online freedoms, and increasingly even democracy itself.

To battle an adversary as flexible and innovative as pirates does not solely mean an inevitable loss for the Copyright maximalists. It means their strategy will be to attack from as many sides as possible and leave a wake of collateral damage. On the lobbying side one can see an endless stream of proposed legislation that appears unable to be killed, despite a clear rejection by the population. The effort to kill the ACTA is met with its reiteration in the TPP. The democratic work to end SOPA sees its worst elements revived… and so it goes.

While these legal attempts appear to be unending, the copyright maximalists slowly and stealthily built precedent for another front, which bypasses law and government entirely. These corporations that attack individual rights have been making rather quiet forays to policing the internet themselves as democracy is still a little too strong for their liking. The most widely known of these plutocratic measures is the graduated response system, set in place in multiple countries.

While it is widely accepted that these systems have failed to reduce piracy, the danger lies in the precedent of corporate power they set. While the UK ban of torrent sites is handed down by a (at least partially democratic) high court, the graduated response system is an agreement between copyright holders and ISPs (who are sometimes the same: Comcast/NBCUniversal—i.e. Conflict of Interest). While the unwinnable whac-a-mole shows that no one can own the internet, this agreement tacitly accepts that ISPs own your connection to it. Thus, thanks to their corporate size and power this growing front-line is not only bypassing the democratic process, it is an affront to it.

Now that your Internet connection is no longer a right, but a privileged bestowed upon you by your ISP, they are slowly increasing the scope. ISPs have called for volunteers for browser plugins that report torrent links, expanding DMCA take-downs from search engines into browsers, and throttling BitTorrent traffic to name a few. While these are currently only for voluntary customers they not only test the waters, but set the precedent for their larger scale adoption. As John Lindsay, CTO at iiNet, says of the BitTorrent Throttling “I often describe it as boiling the frog– you just do it by gently turning up the heat”.

While required plugins or anti-piracy browsers would seem like a bold move by ISPs, the ownership claim of Internet connections was already a bold move that shows how far they are willing to go. Throttled BitTorrent traffic is definitely not unimaginable considering ISPs moved from an “educational” six-strike scheme that does not include permanent disconnection, to actually threatening permanent disconnection. Outside of the internet, corporate giant Paypal has notoriously took advantage of its size to police a political agenda–an example being Paypal’s rejection of payment to VPN iPredator.

There are many more examples, but what these cases have in common is a political decision being made by a small group of people, thanks to their large corporate size and power—essentially the definition of Plutocracy. Not only do we need to fight their encroachment in politics, as a democracy should, but increasingly the arena outside of politics as well. Bypassing politics means democracy is no longer democratic. We must be aware that these corporate decisions are political and thus must be brought back into the political and democratic realm, such as was done with the wise decision to declare Internet access as a basic human right by the UN, and thus not leave it up to the plutocrats.

Featured image is CC BY-NC Bob B. Brown.