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Resist out-of-touch politicians

The world over, politicians are trying to regulate information, thwarting progress and harming innocent people.

Wednesday's Internet-wide protest against two US laws, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and the Protect IP Act (PIPA) – one of which has for the time being been shelved pending amendments – shows that South Africa is not alone in fighting misguided information laws.

Job hunting

Journalistic independence could be compromised if writers had to cast about for other sources of income.

The problems they try to address are not really in dispute. Governments have a legitimate right to protect certain information, for the sake of national security, effective diplomacy, and the protection of personal information. Copyright owners need to be able to enforce their copyrights, if they are to make a living producing information, art and music. Other online activities, such as child pornography, are deeply problematic too.

Without copyright, publishers would be hard pressed to sell advertising against content, and couldn't justify paying content creators. While that may be fine for some types of creators – for example those who use content as a means to market other products or services – it clearly isn't fine for those who rely on the content itself for a living. Journalistic independence could be compromised if writers had to cast about for other sources of income. Some may be able to earn income from speaking, but not every talented writer is also a talented speaker. Similarly, some musicians might be able to earn a living by playing gigs or selling merchandise instead of charging for music, but this is far from a universally satisfactory option.

Conversely, the ability to distribute work rapidly and widely online has transformed the landscape. Despite its downsides, it has given us access to more and better information and entertainment, enabled new kinds of products and services, and stimulated debate and protest.

The situation is certainly not black and white, yet lawmakers routinely treat it as if it is.

Far-reaching laws intended to address narrow problems go against the trend of how information is created and used nowadays. The SOPA and PIPA laws, for example, would act against any Web site found guilty of enabling breach of copyright, and do so as close to the source as possible, by disabling domain name system (DNS) resolution for the site.

Serious infringers of copyright, of course, don't need DNS. They can use IP addresses directly if their favourite pirate site gets blocked at domain name level. Meanwhile, innocent messengers, such as YouTube, Wikipedia, Facebook, and other critical sites on the Internet, such as icanhazcheeseburger.com, could face grave threats to their service as a result of the actions of users.

Technical experts pointed out to the US government that proposed laws aimed at the DNS system would be indistinguishable from hacker attacks that do the same, thereby compromising the security of online banking and e-commerce sites.

The irony is that law already exists to protect copyright. YouTube, for example, routinely blocks access to videos to which a copyright holder objects. Even under existing law, such cases can go too far. Protest organisations have had videos pulled containing parodies of corporate brands, while they themselves have requested take-downs of videos that quote their own work in a critical manner.

Even the supporters of new, Draconian regulations blithely violate existing copyright law. Vice.com dug up some brilliant gotcha screenshots of lawmakers' own copyright violations in the wake of Wednesday's Internet-wide SOPA protest.

In a similar fashion, the South African Protection of State Information Bill (formerly known as POIB) remains a threat to online freedom. As with new copyright laws, the wording is far too vague and broad, granting too much power with too little oversight to politicians and bureaucrats who wish to suppress public access to sensitive information.

South Africa's proposed Weather Service Amendment Bill is another example of law that addresses a narrow problem (spreading public alarm by exaggerated or false weather warnings) with a sledgehammer (jailing anyone who issues severe weather or pollution warnings without permission from the SA Weather Service).

Governments aren't just stupid, and the problem is not limited to South Africa. Politicians have motives beyond the stated reasons for this kind of Draconian law. Protecting the revenue streams of special-interest lobbies faced with competition, such as the film and music industry or the Weather Service – must rank as a prime suspect.

However, ill-considered law restricting the Internet can have widespread unintended consequences. Secrecy or copyright law can be used to hush up official corruption and government waste. Any bets that someone in government is pondering how to suppress recordings of airline radio traffic, after the Defence Ministry was caught in a lie about a chartered jet that shadowed Jacob Zuma's official aeroplane to New York recently?

Hanging the proposals on acknowledged problems such as copyright infringement, illegal gambling, hate speech or child pornography, gives politicians cover to push for ever-greater control over information.

One grave consequence is a chilling effect on innovation. Sure, those who use Google's maps without attribution might cause a problem (for Google). However, current law is perfectly adequate for enforcing copyright, and more Draconian measures will stifle the innovative use of mapping and geolocation. Sure, those who issue alarmist weather warnings can cause a problem, but current law can deal with this, while more Draconian measures put the kibosh on services that supply needs not satisfied by the official monopoly, and stifle the innovative use of weather data to improve the lives of citizens. Sure, music and film piracy present a problem to studios, but laws that permit publishers to sue infringers exist already.

If Draconian copyright law had been used against YouTube or Wikipedia in their early days, would the world now have access to platforms that are so deeply and widely useful? If Facebook or Twitter became liable for copyright infringement by their users, would they be able to play the role they do in organising and publicising political protest movements?

There are reasons to oppose political encroachment on public access to information that are more profound than simply implying politicians are stupid or corrupt. There is a great risk that politicians, in enabling the surveillance state and cracking down on crime, will break the very technologies that make democracy, accountability and prosperity possible for growing numbers of people worldwide. Even if one assumes only the best of intentions, they risk doing incalculable harm to society, innovation, and the modern information economy.

This is why, even if we agree that the concerns politicians cite are valid, those of us who love freedom and progress ought to steadfastly resist political interference in how we create, distribute and use information.


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