Indianapolis


Every so often, I can’t seem to fall asleep. Last night was one of those nights; I have a cold and my head hurt, my back hurt, my legs hurt, and trying to sniffle quietly is not especially effective. Finally at about 1am, I came downstairs so my partner could sleep without starting every time I “quietly “sniffled. When I can’t sleep, I browse the internet. Usually, I browse the Cheezburger sites because they are interesting enough to pass the time, without being so engaging as to keep me awake once I am ready to finally fall asleep with my face mashed into the keyboard. Lately though, even the most casual of internet sites has picked up the anto-SOPA mantra,  making it that much harder for me to disengage in the wee hours.

Sure, the Indiana legislature is back in session, with an impending selection of mind-numbing, facepalm-inducing, terrible, horrible proposals to ensue. “Right To Work” (AKA “Right-to-Work-for-Less”) is just one of many lining up to make my head explode in astonished fury this year. But first: SOPA is the Stop Online Piracy Act; it’s buddy is the Protect IP Act. Piracy in this case does not refer to pirates terrorizing the high seas (nor, unfortunately, to the amazingly ironic rescue of Iranian fishermen that included a helicopter from the USS Kidd, member of the John C. Stennis Carrier Strike Group, on the heels of Ahmadinejad’s warning to stay the hell out of the Persian Gulf). I assumed when I wrote the last sentence that this, the next sentence, would begin: “Instead, online piracy refers to…” followed by a legal definition. Unfortunately, I can’t seem to find a clear legal definition. Online piracy does not appear in the bill’s definitions section. I searched Google (possible thanks to SOPA’s current, non-yet-implemented status) for [“Online Piracy” legal definition]. That query worked for intellectual property, and I found this page with a definition (generally: property covered by copyright, patent, etc), examples relating to relevance, and numerous links. I did find a reference outlining piracy: defined under the law of nations, and requiring robbery at sea… I also found arguments relating to how poorly SOPA defines the crimes it seeks to combat, under Wikipedia’s “Arguments Against” section. I will uncomfortably assume that online piracy refers to stealing someone’s intellectual property in the cyber realms – a space so illusive as to necessitate reference to piracy rather than theft. Meanwhile, Congress continues to pirate porn.

Many of us are familiar with film and music industries’ efforts to prevent people from stealing their intellectual property. Those my age may have discovered Napster just in time to panic about getting sued over it, as comprehension of the differentiation between “sharing” and “theft” was just beginning to dawn. I won’t cover all the arguments that suggest the industries overestimate their losses, because other people do that better than I could, because it just makes intuitive sense that corporations would set their losses as high as possible in order to recoup as much as possible, because it also makes intuitive sense that greater losses mean they have more to lose and are thus more importance/relevance, but mostly because I promised I would clean up the disaster that winter vacation wrought upon our house and there just isn’t time in the day to do both those things. I will say that I am one of those people who, facing the decision to steal, buy, or go without, generally won’t steal because it is complicated, won’t buy because it is expensive, and so go without because I am too poor lazy busy to do otherwise. If, however, Google puts together an easily searchable section of free stuff like they did with out-of-copyright books, I’m all about it. Suffice it to say, no, I don’t believe the industry heavies are losing over $12 billion annually to intellectual property theft.

I do believe the internet is really, really important. I occasionally stop to remember that I only learned to send email when I was in college; my childhood was pre-internet. I even used floppy discs – and had to type in instructions to tell the computer to run the program on the disc! But I can’t imagine what it would be like to lose the trove of accessible information the internet represents. And not just information, but increasingly the platforms for social networking that internet applications offer – tools to disseminate and make use of the internet’s information. The revolutions in Africa and the Middle East are but one brilliant example of how humanity can flourish when it is able to communicate and access information. The horror of SOPA isn’t simply that it would limit first amendment rights to free speech, but that it would hamper the ability of regular people to access information and communicate with each other. No, of course, that isn’t SOPA’s goal, but when the majority of websites that host internet applications are in danger of being blocked by service providers because you posted an illegally copied video/image/piece of property on your profile, that is an easily anticipated outcome of SOPA. Have you ever looked inside your computer? Without those internet applications and the platforms that you use to share information, that’s what the internet looks like – coils and wires and metal. Oh, maybe a fan, too.

Google’s Chief Internet Evangelist (because that’s a thing you can be, apparently) wrote an op-ed arguing that the internet is not a human right. (Cerf quibbles about human versus civil rights; I refer to basic rights because I am less concerned with what is legally recognized than I am with what people deserve.) The argument that it is up to technology creators to empower, support, and protect people on the internet totally, absolutely, unequivocally misses the point of the ongoing revolution-and-SOPA-inspired discourse. Cerf is thinking of ways to make the internet a better tool, which is fantastic. But the argument about the internet and human rights that should accompany any such discussion is that fundamental rights should be protected on the internet. If a government shuts down that resource to the detriment of people’s ability to come together and share information, that infringes on their ability to perform those acts (freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, etc). Such rights are not simply ideas; people must be able to exercise or act out their rights freely, or they are for naught. Cerf asserts: “For example, at one time if you didn’t have a horse it was hard to make a living. But the important right in that case was the right to make a living, not the right to a horse. Today, if I were granted a right to have a horse, I’m not sure where I would put it.” He misses the forest for the tree, even while transportation and freedom of movement remain vital elements of fundamental rights and freedoms. Access isn’t only about making something available, it also means not denying someone the ability to use the thing in question.  If someone denied you the ability to have a horse in that historical frame, it would have been tantamount to denying you the ability to make a living. Back to the internet: we should protect the tools and forums people employ to exercise their rights and freedoms as vital components to the rights and freedoms themselves. Take away those tools, and you remove access effectively diminish one’s ability to exercise their right, even if you do simultaneously pay lip service to supporting those rights.

Ultimately, the internet provides open forums and tools for people to gather, discuss, share, dissent, dissemble, and so forth. The ability to do so, to exercise those freedoms is more important than piracy or the entertainment industry’s ability to turn a buck. The government already fights “online piracy” – I’ve gotten nearly a dozen emails about ICE/Homeland Security’s success shutting down Ninja Video, seizing their domain names, and charging the operators. Presumably, then, SOPA escalates the ability to prosecute while broadening the range of who is responsible while increasing penalties. But it would do so at an unconscionable cost, by limiting the ability of the public to use the internet for legitimate and purposeful ends.

In case you had some need for even more links:

Hilary Clinton on Internet Freedoms: http://www.state.gov/secretary/rm/2011/02/156619.htm

Stephen Colbert on SOPA: http://boingboing.net/2011/12/02/stephen-colbert-explains-sopa.html

In my neighborhood, the new year comes in with a bang – literally. It is as though my neighbors set out to fulfill every stereotype around about gun-wielding Americans. Amidst the volleys of semi-automatic weapons fire, fireworks mortars exploded close enough to our house that we could hear the fzzs that followed. Of course, from a half mile over you wouldn’t know the mortars were fireworks, and a friend-of-a-friend wondered on Facebook just what kind of explosions they were.

It all posed a… let’s say, particular… background for my new year’s reflections. In many ways, recent months have been increasingly tense, as though we all are on the verge of some dramatic event that will shape the coming era. Maybe I’m just noticing the changing millennium, or am picking up on my partner’s over-developed fears of the end of the Mayan calendar – and zombies. (Side note:  the Mayan calendar marked out a complete cycle – set to *renew* this December, as the Maya understood time cyclically. It makes learning the grammar awesome, too. I’ll reserve the rant about the “mystical Maya” for another day, though.) Living in a country where Evangelical Christianity inserts apocalyptic glee into every level of politics, especially the Republican presidential primary, only adds to the sense of impending doom. But at its core are key economic realities.

For some time now, students of history, economy, and politics have incorporated, to varying degrees, a Marxist-based understanding that capitalist society has followed a particular evolutionary path that incorporates specific social tensions and progressions. That understanding incorporates the idea that money – or the production of goods in industry – are the drivers of social structures. Hence, democracy and capitalism are linked, yet capitalism trumps democracy – which enabled US policy makers to promote one of the most perplexing paradoxes of US affairs by supporting the removal of democratically elected leaders around the world, even as the US trumpeted the benefits of democracy, because democracy hinged on capitalism – according to a Marxist-influenced paradigm that those same officials formally eschewed. Capitalism reigned victorious when the Soviet Union collapsed in the last decade of the 20th century. Much like the mysterious Mayan calendar, no one knew what, if any, cycle would follow – Marx never got past capitalism v. communism. Francis Fukuyama phrased the moment concisely in the title of his essay-come-book: The End of History? There was perhaps some vague hope for an golden era of capitalism-induced peace. But capitalist societies have not exactly shone in recent years, either. Neoliberalism perpetuates the skewed power structures of previous market relationships, while promotions of the free market in fact maintain restrictions in the form of subsidies and tax brakes that sustain big business and mega-corporations to the detriment of new or local enterprises.

The housing bust brings to question the value of allowing market actors to determine national economic realities. “Market actors” are the investment professionals who make their living investing (others’) money, and it is notable that they make more money on risky investments that they do on safe, predictable investments. Their motivation is thus contrary to, well, safety. Yet those same market actors are in charge of the great national banks. Capitalist economy depends on their investment to fuel industry, especially in the US where the Federal Reserve replaces a more typical central bank.

In other ways, the banking crisis reflects a deeper conflict in the US between proponents of centralized versus decentralized authority. It is easy to forget that only recently has the US moved towards a centralized federal government, and that we maintain a strong sense of the original, decentralized, federation-style government. While conservatives in the US are promoting family values and social values, in Europe conservatives promote austerity measures. The Euro Zone demands austerity measures that governments may be willing to enforce, but that people may not be willing to accept – raising questions about the democratic process of economic mandates from a centralized institution like the European Central Bank (that is, if you didn’t already have those questions because of World Bank/IMF policies over the last three decades). A New York Times article about debt incurred in Spain’s autonomous zones ends with a quote from a 17-year-old high school student: “…There are all kinds of cuts. This didn’t even happen under Franco.” That’s Franco, the Fascist dictator; the student compares the current austerity measures to policies under the one European Fascist dictator to outlast WWII, and suggests that current austerity measures are worse. Developing nations, meanwhile, have barely made headlines, but there are some indications that the rising BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – are rising ever faster, even as the economic core wavers. It is also notable that the BRICS nations do not universally represent rising democracies, in yet another challenge to the presumption that the liberal, democratic nation-state will predominate in the future.

The problems of big banks, global development and democracy seem distant, if not looming. When contemplating the effects of these problems on my personal life, my initial impulse is to minimalize them. After all, we are not wealthy, and therefore would seem to have little to lose. Yet, I have recently begun to realize that we are, on the one hand, less poor than I imagine – my partner has full time work in a middle class job after all, even though I do not. At the same time, that status does less for us than I once would have imagined. Much of our current financial success, I think, comes from the fact that neither of us realized we were beginning to succeed – which we have only done with the assistance and good graces of my mother-in-law (and we are not yet able to declare total financial independence, either, much to what I can only assume to be her chagrin). In another time, it is possible that we would have been completely reasonable to expect financial stability or even mobility from one income, even with a house and two kids – in fact, I think that would have been standard. So perhaps times really are changing for those of my generation. Maybe I just assumed that student debt and financial pitfalls were nothing new, even while I thought my own struggles were the exception to an otherwise simple enough rule – make good decisions, and succeed (whereas I made some notably unsound decisions).

All of this brings up an additional question: what of my children’s generation? Can they succeed in an urban, public school? What kind of jobs will they have access to? Will they live in a free and open society? These reflections and pondering are ultimately questions about what the future will bring. The new year forebodes a new era, and what it will bring remains unclear.