Google just had to spin the Sony hack.

Can you hear the bells?  They’re not Christmas bells, I’m afraid.  They’re Pavlovian bells, the ones that Google loves to ring whenever the company sees an opportunity to rally the faithful to the cause of “internet freedom.”  They sound like this:  SOPA…SOPA…SOPA.

The Sony hack is a bloody mess, the effects of which have yet to be fully realized.  So far, we have leaks of sensitive, personal information about individuals; meaningless but click-worthy Hollywood gossip; an international crisis with a psychotic, enemy state; threats of terrorism that squashed the release of a motion picture and halted the production of another; an internal dispute between the president of the country and the president of Sony over not releasing that film; and now a threat to attack the White House allegedly issued by North Korea.  But Google thinks this is all about their interests.  Here’s why:

As reported by The Verge and The New York Times, leaked information from the hack reveals that Sony, along with the five other major studios, as well as Microsoft, Expedia, and Oracle  had been in discussion with their own legal teams along with lawyers at the MPAA regarding a strategy to deal with “Goliath,” a code word understood to mean Google. The problem being addressed by the studios in these communications is Google’s well-known recalcitrance in helping to mitigate systemic piracy of filmed entertainment. Moreover, reports about the documents in these links indicate that the motion picture industry has been working with Mississippi State Attorney General Jim Hood, who has been seeking information for more than year regarding Google’s possible role in profiting from child pornography, illegal drug trafficking, and mass copyright infringement.  This association has been criticized by some, and Google has since filed suit against the AG, but nothing thus far indicates any inappropriate activity between the studios and Hood.

It’s no secret that motion picture producers and Google have an ongoing dispute with regard to piracy of filmed entertainment, and I think it’s a safe bet both parties regularly consult with counsel regarding their own interests.  As such, I personally think one of the more serious results of this leak is the rather dramatic breach of attorney/client privilege. I don’t think we want a society in which hackers can arbitrarily violate this fundamental right in our legal system.  Apparently, though, Google’s Sr VP and General Counsel, Kent Walker, was unfazed by this implication — perhaps Google is hacker proof — when he was quoted in Variety saying, “We are deeply concerned about recent reports that the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) led a secret, coordinated campaign to revive the failed SOPA legislation through other means.”  And as of this week, Google has launched a campaign it calls Zombie SOPA.  Ding-a-ling!

Walker is not speaking as an attorney, but rather as a PR guy, when he plays the word secret like that in order to imply a conspiracy, knowing full well that communications between clients and attorneys are almost always secret.  But near the end of the article, he is also quoted plaintively wondering why champions of the First Amendment like the MPAA would “want to censor the Internet.”  Hear them ring!  Of course any discussion about legal remedies to mitigate piracy are tantamount to censorship, right? It is the playbook that the Internet industry has been using for years now — that any regulatory or legislative action affecting them is by its very nature an attack on the Internet itself, and therefore an attack on our freedoms.  Really, I plan to remain free and to exercise my right of free expression even if half of Silicon Valley one day does a perp walk.

Google can repeat this play all it wants, but real censorship is what happens when a bully, by one means or another, frightens someone into not speaking.  The Sony hack story is serious business that reveals several very real dangers associated with this global, networked world in which we now live, including real-world censorship.  As one of the lead architects of that networked society, Google should perhaps show some leadership and stop claiming that its disputes with the motion picture industry are about us and our freedoms.  They should stop ringing the damn SOPA bell in hopes that nobody will be able to hear himself think.

Posted in Digital Culture, Free Speech | Leave a comment

An Allusion to Moore – A Christmas Future

Christmas Poem David Newhoff. Music performed by Sandy Davis. "Christmas Poem"

Christmas Drone

Originally posted December 2013 after Amazon announced plans to use small, unmanned drones for rapid delivery to customers within striking distance of distribution centers.

An Allusion to Moore – A Christmas Future

‘Twas the night before Christmas, and I could stay in the house
To do my last bit of shopping with only a mouse.
The Amazon orders were placed with One-Click.
When we’ve got Saint Bezos, who needs Saint Nick?

The kids were transfixed by screens of all sizes
Near the glimmering tree that soon would blossom with prizes.
And I with my nightcap and Ma with her wine
Were chatting with friends and family online.

When out in the village, I heard a faint humming
My heart skipped a beat ‘cause I knew what was coming.
I logged out of Facebook and ran to the door
Like that guy in that poem by Clement Clarke Moore.

A soft rustle of pines, like a whispering crier
Drew my hopeful gaze upward in search of the flier.
Oh, how the moonlight ‘cross rooftops it shone
So I could see clearly, ‘twas an Amazon drone.

It hovered about fourteen feet off the ground
With eight tiny propellors just whirring around.
And I have to admit that I laughed like a child
To see it settle down gently so meek and so mild.

With an invisible driver of the software variety
I soon was relieved of my drone-based anxiety.
It just blinked and beeped like a jolly wee bot,
So, I approached without fear to see what it brought.

What pieces?! What bits? What gadgets? What toys?!
What tchotchkes?! What baubles? What things that make noise?
And like a an egg-laying falcon, it set a box on the lawn.
Then rose back to the treetops leaving me with its spawn.

Then I waved like a fool and wished it good cheer.
“Happy Christmas!,” I shouted, “And a Happy New Year!”
Needless to say, the drone never replied
So I picked up my package and brought it inside.

And beneath that familiar, oversized, bubbly wrap
Was not what I wanted — but some other crap!
Clearly, the folly of some daft, human sorter
Caused that innocent drone to bring the wrong order!

It appears that not even the best of these digital tools
Can completely save Christmas from the bungling of fools.
After all, what’s the point of so much technology
If we can’t sate each desire and transcend our biology?

So, I went back to the Web to untangle this mess
And demand an exchange in one hour or less!
It took just a few taps on my tablet to clear it,
And soon I was back in the right holiday spirit.

Then, in that moment, I felt my mind pause,
On the faintest memory of an old man named Claus.
So, I poured a fresh whiskey, threw back the shot,
Scoffed at myself and banished the thought.

We tucked in the children and bade them be good
Lest the Internet fail to do what it should.
Why cling to legends spun out of dubious zeal
When silicon wizards can fly reindeer for real?

And as I gazed out the window through crisp starlit skies
I felt grateful to know there are some magical guys
Who tinker in workshops in Northern C-A
To make our wishes come true on each bright new day.

Happy Christmas!

Based on “A Visit from St. Nicholas” by Clement Clarke Moore (1822)
“Up on the Housetop”  written by Benjamin Hanby (1864) and performed by Sandy Davis


Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged | 8 Comments

Copyright Industries Top $1 Trillion Again

Last year, the IIPA (International Intellectual Property Association) released a report revealing the landmark moment for the core copyright industries, which for the first time, had contributed over $1 trillion to the US economy.  And with this week’s release of the IIPA’s 2014 report, copyright has broken the trillion-dollar mark again and continues to outpace the growth rate (3.9%) of the national economy itself (2.25%).  Employing nearly 5.5 million Americans with solid middle-class incomes, the core copyright industries employ nearly 5% of all private-sector workers in the United States.

Core copyright industries include books, music, motion picture, radio & TV broadcasting, computer software, newspapers periodicals and journals, although these are not wholly representative of all media-based enterprises that can make use of copyright protections.

When last year’s IIPA report was released, I dared copyright’s antagonists to “spin this,” and although I’m sure they weren’t responding to me personally, spin it they did.  Well, they tried.  It’s tough to argue with a trillion dollars worth of GDP, even if you attempt to question a million here and million there.  So, I won’t be surprised if copyright’s antagonists either let this one go without comment or dust off the argument that the economic growth stated in the report “cannot be attributed to the fact that the works produced by these industries enjoy protection under copyright.”  This is bizarre logic that seems to skip the obvious point that this economic assessment accounts solely for the transactions in which copyrights are respected and/or enforced.  To quote the report’s introduction:

“Despite the robust achievements of the copy- right industries during the period covered in this Report, significant challenges remain. The copyright industries derive a growing percentage of their revenue from the digital marketplace. Problems such as online piracy and unlicensed uses of copyright materials, as well as market access and other discriminatory challenges, inhibit the growth of these markets in the U.S. and abroad. Economic reports such as this one underscore what is at stake. They provide a compelling argument for more effective legal, enforcement, and market access regimes to promote and foster the growth of the copyright industries throughout the world.”

Yeah, I suppose we could weaken copyright and see what happens to that trillion dollars, but does that seem like a good idea?  More to the point, should we do so in order to create an unregulated playground for Google and Facebook, which combined employ about 45,000 people worldwide?

Posted in Copyright | Tagged , , | 21 Comments

EFF Doubles Down on Barlow Declaration

It was December 1775 when the text of King George III’s October speech to parliament regarding rebellion in the colonies was reprinted and spread among the American colonies. Prior to this revelation, many citizens, members of Congress, and even Washington himself were not entirely sure that a new nation would or should be the desired outcome of hostilities that had begun in Massachusetts earlier that year. According to historian David McCullough, though, it was the paternalistic and heavy-handed tone of the king’s speech that galvanized American commitment to sever their colonies from England and thus author The Declaration of Independence, fight a long and bloody revolution, and then write the Constitution to form a democratic republic unlike any nation that had ever existed. 221 years later, the Congress of that nation passed a law called The Telecommunications Reform Act, and it was this law that supposedly inspired former Grateful Dead lyricist and co-founder of the Electronic Frontier Foundation John Perry Barlow to write and deliver his own Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland on February 8, 1996. The declaration begins…

“Governments of the Industrial World, you weary giants of flesh and steel, I come from Cyberspace, the new home of Mind. On behalf of the future, I ask you of the past to leave us alone. You are not welcome among us. You have no sovereignty where we gather.”

To the cyber-utopian, Barlow’s declaration remains a seminal work — so much so that the Electronic Frontier Foundation earlier this month announced that the “Department of Records” has newly released a limited edition, vinyl recording of Barlow reciting his declaration. The album is beautifully packaged with a signed, printed copy of Barlow’s words and is available to purchase for fifty bucks. I clicked on the link to the Department of Records, and near as I can tell, this “organization” consists of a three-page website boasting a stated mission to “preserve cultural artifacts for the collective memory in both the physical and digital worlds.” So far, the collection belonging to the DOR appears to be just one artifact, that being the limited edition, vinyl album of Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace. And despite the fact that the declaration proclaims a rejection of intellectual property…

“In our world, whatever the human mind may create can be reproduced and distributed infinitely at no cost. The global conveyance of thought no longer requires your factories to accomplish.”

I can’t help but notice that the acronym DOR on the site bears a registered trademark symbol, and there is an affirmation of copyright at the bottom of the page. Then, again both the hubris and the hypocrisy of the whole package are consistent with the declaration itself. Barlow continues…

“We have no elected government, nor are we likely to have one, so I address you with no greater authority than that with which liberty itself always speaks. I declare the global social space we are building to be naturally independent of the tyrannies you seek to impose on us. You have no moral right to rule us nor do you possess any methods of enforcement we have true reason to fear.”

Like a cybernetic Lorax, Barlow sows the seeds of ultra-libertarianism, which more honestly describes the ideology that connects both Silicon Valley’s wealthiest oligarchs and social media’s lowliest trolls. In fact, had Barlow borrowed from Dr. Seuss…

I’m JP Barlow, and I speak for the Tubes,
And I’m telling you folks that we are not Rubes!

I might actually buy the album. But possessing neither the moral authority nor the clarity nor the poetry of either Jefferson or Geisel, Barlow’s declaration is more political stump speech than a work deserving white-glove custodianship. Like any rouser of rabble, the declaration is typically vague as it strings together emotionally-charged phrases adding up to unfulfillable promises like the following:

“We are creating a world where anyone, anywhere may express his or her beliefs, no matter how singular, without fear of being coerced into silence or conformity.”

Unless of course you are a woman and a feminist, in which case, we are very likely to violate your privacy and your personal safety and to Photoshop your likeness as though it is being raped by an angry baboon. The gullibility of Barlow’s words and those who find inspiration in them proceeds from the premise that the rule of law itself is not the expression of an enlightened society but is rather the means by which our better angels are corrupted. This is a refutation of the framers upon whose shoulders Barlow presumes to be standing. Had this speech been a clear criticism of particular aspects of the Telecommunications Reform Act, then we could debate the merits of that criticism in context to what has transpired since that law’s passage, but to enter into such debate is to accept that law has any role to play at all, and that idea remains anathema to cyber-utopians swooning at the altar of Barlow. He doesn’t want to criticize a law, he wants to reject the notion of statehood in favor of mob rule while espousing an astonishing faith that mobs left to their own devices are ethical…

“Our identities have no bodies, so, unlike you, we cannot obtain order by physical coercion. We believe that from ethics, enlightened self-interest, and the commonweal, our governance will emerge. Our identities may be distributed across many of your jurisdictions. The only law that all our constituent cultures would generally recognize is the Golden Rule.”

Indeed. With Marxian naiveté, Barlow makes the case that the unfettered design of cyberspace fosters a natural, ethical order among people just as the removal of private property would foster in a communist society. And he cynically implies that order is only established in the physical world through the threat of physical coercion, as though Away From Keyboard, we have no altruistic morality. Ask yourself whether you’ve experienced more rudeness in the physical world or in cyberspace; whether or not everyone who expresses ideas through social media is treated with respect; whether or not, prior to our networked world, some asshole with a keyboard could have done the kind of damage to free speech, privacy, and civil rights that the Sony hacker(s) managed to do this month. The Golden Rule? I don’t think so.

Cyberspace, like physical space, is a world in which people act like people; and unfortunately, this includes criminal, morally depraved, or just plain dumb behaviors, some of which were not possible prior to the opening of this new frontier. Human trafficking, identity theft, intellectual property theft, cyberstalking, the expansion of yellow journalism, terrorist propaganda, and child abuse are all beneficiaries of Barlow’s sacred “home of Mind.” We have to accept that and deal with it; and absent our participation in society through government, I am at a loss to know what realistic alternative might exist. Letting the six guys who own the most popular sites make all the decisions? Because that’s what’s happening now. Governance of cyberspace exists; it’s written in the Terms of Service, and you didn’t vote for anyone who wrote those terms.

In truth, I think Barlow’s too hip, too vague, and too naive speech ought to be titled The Declaration of Indyness. Because indyness is kind of like independence, but would be a an appropriately fuzzy neologism that expresses the attitude of the individual narcissist rather than the sovereignty of a society that must construct systems in an imperfect attempt to achieve prosperity for as many citizens as possible. Still, I imagine the record jacket is just as useful as any other for separating the seeds from the stems, and with Christmas just around the corner, it might be the perfect gift for someone you know.

Posted in Digital Culture | Tagged , , | 10 Comments

In response to Caitlin Dewey re. TPB

Photo by GlobalIP
Photo by GlobalIP

Dear Caitlin Dewey:

I have read some really dumb, cloying, and earnestly written ideological gibberish in the past three years,  but you have reset the bar with your recent love letter to online piracy.  To be clear, I am confident that piracy itself is a serious problem for both culture and the economy, but this particular disease is nothing compared to the metastasized cancer that has scrambled brains like yours into believing that piracy is actually about something.  You write, “See, the Pirate Bay is as much an idea and an orientation to entrainment media as it is/was a torrent-tracking site.”  Really?  Are you so culturally illiterate that you don’t know a cheap sales pitch when you hear one?  The boys of TPB are not the first thieves in history to justify their crimes by claiming to be leading the world toward some New Jerusalem.  And being a sucker for that message is more socially toxic than the piracy itself.  If you’re going to pirate media, then have the intellectual honesty to say “I’m stealing and I don’t care.”  And then shut up about it.

Piracy isn’t an idea or an ideology or a principle.  It’s a cheap, tawdry, and frankly sexist (note the ads) enterprise of lazy opportunists who profit from other people’s hard and real work.  Profit is why the Pirate Bay and sites like it have existed; and consuming media for free is why people use these sites.  It doesn’t take a degree in psychology to understand either the “buy” or the “sell” side of these transactions, which make pirate sites profitable; but if pundits like you would at least spare us your banner-waving social revolutionary horse shit, then perhaps actual thought might survive this digital slaughter bench of reason that seems to flip your proverbial kilt.

Again, you write:  “But even if TPB doesn’t return, the politics and the conventions it advanced — that content should be free, and if you torrent, they can be! — will be very difficult to eradicate.”

That’s positively adorable, like something a child might write, especially the way your ebullience almost masks the lack of subject/verb agreement.*  But that’s the thing, Caitlin, writing is work, and good writing is hard work.  And so is making music, television shows, and motion pictures.  And it is not in fact the Internet “created by The Pirate Bay” that enables you to jump on this facile bandwagon and spill out a few hundred words for The Washington Post.  In truth, you are able to get up in the morning, buy yourself a latte, and have at it with your keyboard because you live in a society in which free people are rewarded for their labor by compensation.  And that fundamental, economic principle has a hell of a lot more to do with the freedom you claim to love than does your petulant desire to watch Game of Thrones without bloody well paying for it.

 *NOTE:  To be fair, Dewey’s error is a singular antecedent with plural pronoun, which sounds like subject/verb disagreement but isn’t quite.  See, good writing is hard work.  Thanks to one reader for noticing.

Posted in Digital Culture, Piracy | Tagged , | 93 Comments