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Double exposure

So finally we know. Ever since Wikileaks began releasing diplomatic cables copyright activists have been waiting to see if the trove would expose undue influence on national laws. And this week there it was: a 2005 cable from the US Embassy in New Zealand requesting $386,158 to fund start-up costs and the first year of an industry-backed intellectual property enforcement unit and a 2009 cable offering "help" when New Zealand was considering a "three-strikes" law. Much, much more on this story has been presented and analyzed by the excellent Michael Geist, who also notes similar US lobbying pressure on Canada to "improve" its "lax" copyright laws.

My favorite is this bit, excerpted from the cable recounting an April 2007 meeting between Embassy officials and Geist himself:

His acknowledgement that Canada is a net importer of copyrighted materials helps explain the advantage he would like to hold on to with a weaker Canadian UPR protection regime. His unvoiced bias against the (primarily U.S. based) entertainment industry also reflects deeply ingrained Canadian preferences to protect and nurture homegrown artists.

In other words, Geist's disagreement with US copyright laws is due to nationalist bias, rather than deeply held principles. I wonder how they explain to themselves the very similar views of such diverse Americans as Macarthur award winner Pamela Samuelson, John Perry Barlow, Lawrence Lessig. The latter in fact got so angry over the US's legislative expansion of copyright that he founded a movement for Congressional reform, expanding to a Harvard Law School center to research broader questions of ethics.

It's often said that a significant flaw in the US Constitution is that it didn't - couldn't, because they didn't exist yet - take account of the development of multinational corporations. They have, of course, to answer to financial regulations, legal obligations covering health and safety, and public opinion, but in many areas concerning the practice of democracy there is very little to rein those in. They can limit their employees' freedom of speech, for example, without ever falling afoul of the First Amendment, which, contrary to often-expressed popular belief, limits only the power of Congress in this area.

There is also, as Lessig pointed out in his first book, Code: and Other Laws of Cyberspace, no way to stop private companies from making and implementing technological decisions that may have anti-democratic effects. Lessig's example at the time was AOL, which hard-coded a limit of 23 participants per chat channel; try staging a mass protest under those limits. Today's better example might be Facebook, which last week was accused of unfairly deleting the profiles of 51 anti-cuts groups and activists. (My personal guess is that Facebook's claim to have simply followed its own rules is legitimate; the better question might be who supplied Facebook with the list of profiles and why.) Whether or not Facebook is blameless on this occasion, there remains a legitimate question: at what point does a social network become so vital a part of public life that the rules it implements and the technological decisions it makes become matters of public policy rather than questions for it to consider on its own? Facebook, like almost all of the biggest Internet companies, is a US corporation, with its mores and internal culture largely shaped by its home country.

We have often accused large corporate rights holders of being the reason why we see the same proposals for tightening and extending copyright popping up all over the world in countries whose values differ greatly and whose own national interests are not necessarily best served by passing such laws. More recently written constitutions could consider such influences. To the best of my knowledge they haven't, although arguably this is less of an issue in places that aren't headquarters to so many of them and where they are therefore less likely to spend large amounts backing governments likely to be sympathetic to their interests.

What Wikileaks has exposed instead is the unpleasant specter of the US, which likes to think of itself as spreading democracy around the world, behaving internationally in a profoundly anti-democratic way. I suppose we can only be grateful they haven't sent Geist and other non-US copyright reform campaigners exploding cigars. Change Congress, indeed: what about changing the State Department?

It's my personal belief that the US is being short-sighted in pursuing these copyright policies. Yes, the US is currently the world's biggest exporter of intellectual property, especially in, but not limited to, the area of entertainment. But that doesn't mean it always will be. It is foolish to think that down the echoing corridors of time (to borrow a phrase from Jean Kerr) the US will never become a net importer of intellectual property. It is sheer fantasy - even racism - to imagine that other countries cannot write innovative software that Americans want to use or produce entertainment that Americans want to enjoy. Even if you dispute the arguments made by campaigning organizations such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation and the Open Rights Group that laws like "three strikes" unfairly damage the general public, it seems profoundly stupid to assume that the US will always enjoy the intellectual property hegemony it has now.

One of these days, the US policies exposed in these cables are going to bite it in the ass.


Wendy M. Grossman's Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series.

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