In the last year I’ve written what some might have felt were rather too many thousand words about ACTA. But I’d argue that it was an important moment, not least because of the European Parliament’s refusal to ratify the treaty, which was quite unprecedented for an international agreement of this kind.
This was the theme I explored in a talk I gave at the Netz fur Alle conference held in Berlin a couple of weeks ago. It was organised by the German political group Die Linke, and so I took the opportunity to look at some of the political implications of the defeat of ACTA. But as you can see from my slides and the video of my talk below, this was politics framed in terms of scarcity and abundance – familiar themes to readers of this blog.
In particular, I wanted to look at the way there is a new politics of abundance emerging that parallels an earlier appearance of the politics of scarcity. The latter is more generally known as the Green movement, and concentrates on analogue scarcities – that is, of resources. The new politics, exemplified by the Pirate Party, but not uniquely, concerns the digital abundance that the Internet makes available.
Scarcity politics can be analysed in terms of what economists call negative externalities – the hidden cost of pretending that resources are abundant, and which we all pay in the form of pollution or environmental degradation. Similarly, abundance politics can also be framed in terms of negative externalities that arise from acting as if digital resources were scarce, when for practical purposes they can be copied repeatedly for vanishingly small cost.
Those externalities include what I call an ethical “pollution” - the fact that laws protecting intellectual monopolies are now considered more important than laws protecting basic human rights. A good example is the three-strikes law in France (and possibly in the UK if the Digital Economy Act decides to implement that option), which allows for an entire family’s Internet connection to be cut off purely based on accusations that it was used for sharing unauthorised copies of files. That’s essentially collective punishment, something forbidden in the Geneva Convention.
It’s instructive to compare this punishment with cutting off a family’s water supply because someone in the household is accused of making illegal alcohol, for example – something that no civilised nation would contemplate. And yet regulatory capture has allowed the copyright industries to push through legislation in various countries around the world that permits precisely that kind of disproportionate action in the digital sphere.
Similarly, one of the biggest problems with ACTA was that it “promoted cooperative efforts” between copyright holders and ISPs, which would allow the former to make allegations without proof about the latters' customers, with the result that their content was removed – extrajudicial censorship. So much for “innocent until proven guilty” - an approach that is apparently no longer required when it comes to policing intellectual monopolies.
Another negative externality is the fact that billions of people around the world – those with at least a mobile phone that can connect them to the Internet – are denied access to most of human knowledge, which is often only available to those able to pay Western-type charges. Even when “special” rates are offered in emerging countries, they remain well beyond the reach of the poorest sectors of the population – precisely those who most need access to knowledge to better their condition.
Such artificial scarcity is doubtless a great business model for the publishers. But there is a huge associated cost for society in terms of the innovation and creativity that those billions of people could have contributed to the planet had they been able to realise their full potential. The vast majority of them won’t, because they don’t have access to the full array of educational materials and information that would have allowed them to use their capabilities to the full. As Eben Moglen likes to remark, among the billions of children alive today, there are probably many Einsteins and equivalents, but few, if any, will ever be able to use their genius to the full.
That’s a real loss for all of us – think of the amazing innovations and inventions that are inevitably lost as a result – that is a direct result of the current system of using absurdly repressive laws to impose an artificial scarcity on knowledge. And yet that huge cost in terms of lost opportunities – and lives, too, since many would doubtless be saved if all the potential medical geniuses in the world were able to apply their skills to helping the sick and injured – is never factored into the equation when we talk about reforming the current intellectual property laws. Instead, all we ever hear about are the supposed benefits of the system in terms of its “contributions” to the economy. The whole debate is biased against change, which is why we need a new generation of politicians who recognise and understand the profound implications of digital abundance.
If you want to follow my detailed argument, I’ve embedded the slides below:
Gluttons for punishment can watch the video of the talk, for which there is a choice. The “official” Netz fÃ¼r Alle recording is here:
There’s another made by Anonymous Hamburg, which has rather cleverly embedded my slides alongside the video, so that you can listen and read the bullet points at the same time, which you might find more convenient.