unfinished work

Nov 13

I Believe In The Internet - The Content Industry Doesn’t

I have always believed that the entertainment industry’s effort to stop piracy by asking search engines and ISPs to make it more difficult for their users to find pirate sites was the wrong way to solve the problem, but it could never put my finger on why I felt so strongly about it. After all, the entertainment industry argues that they are only targeting the worst pirates and are only asking for help because those pirates are offshore and out of the reach of U.S. authorities.

At a dinner earlier this week, Joi Ito, the head of the Media Lab at MIT described the Internet as a “belief system” and I suddenly understood. The Internet is not just a series of pipes. It’s core architecture embeds an assumption about human nature. The Internet is designed to empower individuals not control them. It assumes that the if individuals are empowered, they will do the right thing the vast majority of the time. Services like eBay, Craigslist, Etsy and AirBnB are built on the assumption that most people are honest. Other services like Tumblr, Twitter, YouTube, Wordpress, and Soundcloud assume people will be generous with their ideas, insights and creations. Wikipedia has proven that people will share their knowledge. Companies like Kickstarter show that people will even be generous with their money. This does not mean that there are not bad people out there. All of these companies spend a lot of time and money to battle spam and fraud. The companies are simply betting that there are many more good people than bad. The architecture of the Internet shares this assumption. It could have been designed to prevent bad behavior. Instead its design empowers good behavior.

The entertainment industry does not share this view of human nature.  I recently suggested to a friend at Viacom that one possible solution to the offshore piracy problem would be to have browsers launch a pop-up with a warning the way they do for phishing sites. Something like THE ATTORNEY GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES HAS DETERMINED THAT THIS SITE HOSTS UNAUTHORIZED COPYRIGHTED MATERIAL. DOWNLOADING MATERIAL FROM THIS SITE MAY BE ILLEGAL.  If that warning included a link where the user could find the content and purchase it legally at a fair price, I believe it would make a big dent on piracy.

My friend disagreed. He said that users would just see the warning as confirmation they were in the right place. He cited other examples of moral failing suggesting that he believes that in general people will take advantage of others if given the chance. I think something else is going on. I believe that downloaders are making a moral calculation and coming to the conclusion that the content industry immorally perpetuates an artificial scarcity to maximize their profits at the expense of users and artists. They understand that content is a non-rival good, that unlike an apple, they can consume it without diminishing anyone else’s ability to consume the same thing. They know that the content owner paid nothing to reproduce or distribute the content on the Internet. They also know that the artists who created the original content get a tiny fraction of the revenue. So they are making a moral judgement that the content owners are pricing their product to extract unjustifiable profits and they feel morally justified taking the content they find out there on the web.

Whether you agree with me that the vast majority of people are good or with my friend that given a chance many people will steal is not really important. What is important is that PIPA, and SOPA, the legislation the content industry is currently pushing through Congress, will not allow me to architect a service and build a relationship with consumers that reflects my core beliefs about human nature.  If I am a search engine and I remove sites from my index, I am essentially lying to my users. If I am a social media site and I remove links my users have posted to sites that some authority has deemed illegal, I am breaking a promise.

I am sympathetic to the content industries struggles with piracy, but my belief system tells me the answer is to capitalize on the great strengths of the Internet to create a healthy and profitable relationship with their users not to sue them. No matter how strongly I believe that, however, I do not think I have the right to tell them how to run their business. Apparently, they do not feel the same way about our businesses. The current legislation in Congress does not just create an administrative burden, it requires service providers who have built wonderful businesses on a deep conviction about human nature to change their relationship with their users in a way that subverts their core values.

Unfortunately, this legislation may pass. The content Industry has invested heavily to get it through. Legislators need to hear from every entrepreneur and every user who understands that the Internet is more than a set of pipes. They need to hear that innovation and economic development comes from empowering users not constraining them. You can learn more here. You can make your voice heard by participating in American Censorship Day. Please make yourself heard.

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