Muhammad Ali turned 70 this week, but the heavyweight event that garnered the most attention matched web users and several high-profile sites (in our corner — white shorts, gloves off, and a Twitter tattoo) against the villainous RIAA/MPAA (boohiss, cloaked in Benjamins with gloves made of solid gold). The implosion of SOPA/PIPA and the SEAL-Team-6-style takedown of Megaupload were as exhilarating as any blood sport, but neither of these mass-participatory events concluded with anything like the finality of Caesar’s thumb.
For piracy, it’s an old story. From the entertainment industry comes the perennial cry: it’s war. From everyone else we hear the same answer we’ve heard since Napster or the invention of the VCR: it’s untenable. What did change, however, were the players and the tactics.
So, a play-by-play: some dopey bill only nerds are paying attention to floats around the House and Senate with a whole bunch of support drummed up by deep-pocketed entertainment lobbyists. Then a few not-so-tiny websites launch protests that elicit an insane volume of legal and civic response. Phone lines are tied up in congressional offices and numerous lawmakers’ websites crash when they are overwhelmed with petitioning constituents. Two days later, the bills are shelved. Whoa.
At the same time, MPAA/RIAA flips the bird in a huge way when the Department of Justice launches a massive strike against Megaupload, essentially realizing many of the worst fears of SOPA/PIPA opponents and proving they didn’t even need that law anyway. The hacktivist group Anonymous responds with illegal and sleazy DDoS attacks, shutting down the websites of MPAA/RIAA, Universal Music, CBS, and the DOJ.
A single protest, entirely unprecedented in size and form, stopped a controversial bill from even reaching a vote. This, in itself, is astounding. It represents a step towards the type of real-time democracy that is often hinted at in media accounts of “Twitter Revolutions.” Less unequivocally righteous are the Anonymous attacks, which of course run the risk of delegitimizing the SOPA/PIPA protest. Action like this lends credence to the anti-piracy groups’ claim that it’s mostly criminals defending the crime. But what’s a protest without a few black bandanas? Regardless the means, these protests send a similar message: the ever-increasing ease of communicating and organizing is leveling the playing field between citizens, their governments, and industry.
And while there’s good reason to be taking victory laps around the internet, there is something at work here that still bothers me. The fact that we even knew about SOPA/PIPA is largely due to the activism of web giants. And it would be crazy to think they don’t have a dog in this fight. Google, Twitter, Facebook, among others. The same companies that made this type of mass-action possible. While their reasoning against SOPA/PIPA was sound, we cannot deny that these companies subsist entirely on content they don’t own and don’t create. They need the net to be free, at least to them.
The media battles of the future won’t be about ownership but about distribution. The concept of internet piracy is nearly dead. We increasingly demand and expect content to be free to us and free to use and redistribute as we like. Old industry giants like the RIAA and the MPAA still have trouble accepting this, and for years have been lashing out against would-be customers. The effect of this on the creative community is well documented in films like RiP! and in the writings of Lawrence Lessig and Cory Doctorow, among others. What will the analogous threat be once the ideas are free but their availability profitable? Millions and millions of us were just turned into Silicon Valley lobbyists under the banner of net equality, but also under the threat of losing our supposed right to watch Game of Thrones without paying anyone. We fought, but who won?