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by Stephen Logan on 17th January 2012
For its innumerable benefits, the Internet hasn’t half caused a lot of problems in its relatively short existence. The speed with which it has revolutionised communications, entrepreneurial endeavour and information sharing has been phenomenal. However, like many revolutions before it, there are always going to be some people who are left behind – pining for the lives we all once enjoyed. There is no going back though.
The Internet is here and it’s not going to be disappearing any time soon. Whilst modern-day luddites attempt to smash progress in order to preserve dying industries of the pre-digital age, Governments appear confused and despairingly indecisive when developing legislations to manage online usage. So what’s going wrong?
Back in the 19th century, when factories started to bring in machines to fill the manual jobs that thousands of people relied on, it caused a bit of a hoo-hah. Not a massive surprise, considering the huge loss of livelihood and the swiftness of the epochal shift that was under way. Inevitably there was a reaction.
With poverty rampant, and heightening levels of unemployment, coupled with diminished working opportunities, some desperate souls created the luddites. Their sole aim was to cause as much disruption and damage as possible. So they basically entered factories and smashed up the machinery. Invariably, the Government had to intervene, resulting in show trials and executions galore. Laws were passed to make damage to machinery a capital offence, in an effort to suppress the rising anger of the growing movement.
Fast forward 200 years and we’re almost back to square one. Okay, so things are a little more sophisticated, but once again we have two opposing viewpoints, causing conflict between the old way of doing things and the modern alternative. But in a stark reversal of fortunes, it is now the big companies that are seeking the help of governments against the individuals.
Government Legislation – SOPA & PIPA
Let’s talk about SOPA and PIPA for a moment. We all know that there is an issue with piracy when talking about the Internet. Pirate Bay was scuttled back in 2009, but that hasn’t changed a thing. In fact, if anything, it brought more attention to the issue. Sweden has had an official political party dedicated to piracy since 2006, which now enjoys the third highest membership of any political party in the country. In fact, Piratpartiet even has two MEPs, representing Sweden in the European parliament. Similar groups can now be seen in 33 countries, demonstrating the growth and potential power of the movement.
Consequently the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) looks outdated, misguided and doomed to fail. Enabling American companies to take action on copyright infringement throughout the world, you will open up a Pandora’s Box of unenforceable legislations and a cavalcade of legal headaches. It’s a nonsense and one which looks likely to be shelved. With major sites like Wikipedia and Reddit announcing a 24 hour blackout on English language sites tomorrow, the issue is going to play out in full public view.
PIPA, or, to give its full name, Preventing Real Online Threats to Economic Creativity and Theft of Intellectual Property Act of 2011, follows a similar line. The vote to determine whether it is passed takes place next week; however, it too covers the illegal hosting of intellectual property (films, music, literature etc.) and enables companies to take legal action against websites hosting any such content. Understandably, Google have been one of the more vocal opponents to this bill.
Monetising in a Digital Economy
Film studios, music labels and publishers have been fighting a losing battle against the Internet for years. In days of yore we would all go to the cinema to see movies, buy a record from a store, or purchase a newspaper or book to read on the train. The Internet has changed all of that. Even after Napster folded, peer to peer sharing continued, as did piracy, and it did so right under the noses of legislators. Whilst there have been harsh punishments passed down to individuals throughout the world, nobody has found an effective way of halting the inexorable spread of copyrighted material.
Now there’s nothing wrong with an artist or copyright owner protecting their income stream, but there are better ways of going about it. Policing the Internet is always going to prove a challenge and it will probably never happen in full. How can you possibly hope to prosecute individuals on the other side of the world for accessing something illegally? It’s unenforceable and implausible.
Closer to home we’re counting down to May 26th, when the European Cookie law hits these shores. Whilst privacy is an issue online, and one that needs to be dealt with as quickly as possible, opting out of sharing cookies probably isn’t the solution. British websites have had an extra year to get their heads around what action needs to be taken, but the clock is ticking. Soon display advertising will become increasingly difficult and a whole range of things we all took for granted will disappear into the mists of time.
Finding Balance Between Copyright and Logic
Legislators shouldn’t pander to the whims of the online community, but they should certainly take the time to listen to what they have to say. The Internet has grown so much and so quickly that nobody has really been able to find an effective way of keeping everything in check. Perhaps it is time to take stock and look at what we can do to keep users safe without ruining their experience, or making it unnecessarily difficult for businesses to carry out their daily duties. But knee-jerk reactions and misguided laws aren’t going to help anybody.
So many industries have struggled in the face of online competition. Newspapers are a good example. Monetising online content has proven to be a massive challenge. Some have relied on advertising, others have put up paywalls. But all the while, physical sales have diminished.
The high street has also suffered. Barratts, HMV and La Senza are the latest in a long line of businesses to face mass closures or bankruptcy as a result of increased online competition. Whilst this decline is awful, it is also unavoidable. Online retailers don’t have the same overheads and some operate from countries with different taxation rules, enabling a huge competitive advantage.
As much as governments try to intervene, ultimately it will be down to businesses and individuals to determine their own destiny. A change is happening, whether you like it or not. The Internet will provide the platform for this change, so that’s where you’ve got to look to compete. If you’re a music company and CD sales are down, look at monetising digital sales. Film studios need to offer competitive streaming services, and publishers will have to accept that physical copies are likely to diminish.
Businesses can still succeed in a purely offline capacity, just as they can online. However, the game has changed and there is no going back. Whether SOPA or PIPA will be passed or prove effective in the fight against copyright violation remains to be seen, but it won’t be the last legislative intervention – successful or otherwise – that we see.
2012 should certainly prove to be an interesting year in the evolution of the Internet and significant changes could be just around the corner.