On Monday, the Internet Association, which represents most of the major online platforms, sent a letter to the president-elect asking that his administration show support for the the status quo of the CDA and the DMCA in order to sustain “innovation and free expression” online. But for the date and the name Trump, the letter is a boilerplate industry position arguing that the OSPs’ limited-liability for actions like copyright infringement is the reason we consumers enjoy all the prosperity being fostered by the internet. Of course, I am moved to ask, even in a reluctant spirit of bipartisanship, what prosperity?
Setting aside all the vitriol and hate-speak for a moment (and it is very hard to set aside), the primary rationale voters cited in the exit polls for their votes was a “Desire for change.” So many Americans are apparently feeling anxious about their economic prospects that they are literally grasping at straws at this point. In this regard, both parties are guilty of dissembling on the promise to “bring jobs back” when speaking to working-class voters—projecting a false image of middle-class, manufacturing jobs returning while simply ignoring the reality of automation. Even if a new factory is built in Pennsylvania, it’s mostly going to be run by robots.
Meanwhile, the internet industry is asking the presumptive change agent that is the president-elect to support the entrenchment of 20-year-old statutes that have failed to produce anything like middle-class, economic prosperity to replace what those statutes have actually cost us. As the letter to Trump states …
“Intermediary liability laws and policies protect free speech and creativity on the internet. This, in turn, generates substantial value for our economy and society through increased scale, greater diversity, and lowered barriers to entry for creators and entrepreneurs.”
That sounds very pretty, but where’s the beef? We can count the money that no longer goes into the pockets of authors, music makers, filmmakers, photographers, journalists, etc. And we can count the supporting jobs and businesses those industries no longer sustain; but where is the middle-class prosperity that’s replacing those losses—all that “substantial value for our economy” the internet industry keeps talking about? Because if people have been enjoying that prosperity, then why all the economic anxiety? What about the millions of voters who were on the fence about Trump but are simply so worried about dwindling economic opportunity that they figured some change—any change—was worth a shot?
The internet industry is still selling roulette economics dressed up as entrepreneurism and using that pitch to justify stealing economic value from hard-working creators. I know the internet industry largely campaigned against Trump because they personally view themselves as progressives, but from a policy perspective with regard to issues like DMCA safe harbors, I’m surprised the Internet Association wouldn’t have expected a casino owner to be an ideal ally to their way of viewing the economy. After all, the YouTube version of “prosperity” is exactly the same as a casino. A handful of big winners makes new creators forget that most who try will lose while the house always wins. They dangle stories like PewDiePie just like golden dollar signs in a casino to convince creators there is a new way to “make it” in a market where they no longer need to care about owning the rights to their work.
Maybe it’s time for the leaders in Silicon Valley to do some soul-searching and decide whether they truly care to benefit people the way they keep claiming they do; or if they just want to protect their bottom line. There are members of the Internet Association who are more pragmatic about finding common ground with authors and creators, some who are more willing to sit down and discuss practical and voluntary solutions to solve challenges like mass infringement and other exploitations of creative work.
Other members are less inclined to this approach, given to protectionist responses and divisive PR aimed at creators seeking voluntary and legislative measures to mitigate mass infringement. But these folks should make up their minds. You can’t be for the people and be anti-individual rights at the same time; and the right to protect one’s ownership in expressive works is an individual right. In fact, it happens to be the first individual right mentioned in the Constitution. Time for Silicon Valley to put down its playbook and think more humanely about the future.