Category Archives: piracy

Online Piracy: The New 'War on Drugs'

Recently, I was asked to lead a discussion for a Columbia student group about internet ‘piracy’. The topic isn’t synonymous with SOPA/PIPA/ACTA, but those bills obviously came up. Glenn Greenwald does an excellent job explaining why, even if SOPA is dead, we may still be losing the war.

This is what I have to add about all of those bills.

No law will ever stop online filesharing (in the long run).

Copyright, copyleft, public domain, whatever – it doesn’t matter. Technology moves too fast, and government moves too slowly. We’ve seen it time and again – they shut down Napster, then Kazaa popped up. Kazaa came under fire, then torrenting became popular. Now the trend is towards magnet links, which are even easier to share, and even harder to censor. Temporary setbacks aside, if you really want to keep getting digital media for free, I’d bet almost anything you’ll still be able to in ten, fifteen, twenty years. (If we haven’t yet moved beyond digital media to telepathy by then, that is).

It’s worse than the drug war, because it’s not even a fair battle. You need a lot of cooperation in Congress to get a bill passed, but you only need one Shawn Fanning or one gojomo to come up with a brilliant innovation that turns everything on its head again. At best, this is an arms race – an arms race in which the technological innovators have the upper hand every time. 

Even with every law in the world on yours side, if you can’t even stop people from buying and selling drugs, which are rival, excludable, and expensive[1], don’t kid yourself thinking you can stop people from consuming a good that costs nothing to reproduce, and at zero marginal cost to both supplier and consumer.

These laws should be applied universally, or not at all.

The natural counterargument to my first point is that ACTA/SOPA/PIPA would/should only go after ‘the worst offenders’. That’s even worse. If you’re going to censor information, it has to be censored equally and uniformly. That’s the difference between applying a law out of principle and applying a law because it suits your own interests.

That statement applies to many laws, and it’s why I feel so strongly about it. With the war on drugs, we also go after ‘only the worst offenders’, and look where it’s gotten us. Any law applied selectively is applied with a bias, whether intentionally or not – it’s just that the bias may not be obvious.

With the war on drugs, the real victims are primarily racial minorities (especially black/Latino), the poor, and youth. (This is such common knowledge that I won’t even bother linking to sources, but if you really don’t believe me and can’t find a credible source, let me know.)

Sometimes, that’s the entire point. There are plenty of examples of laws which have been used primarily – even exclusively – for purposes completely unrelated to the original ones. The PATRIOT act is only the most recent controversy that comes to mind; U.S. (and world) history is littered with other examples. The recent ‘child porn’ law, if it it passes, would eventually be used for far more than child pornography – mark my words. Child porn is just a convenient red herring.

The war on drugs marginalizes certain groups so dramatically that I’ve heard it referred to as ‘the new Jim Crow’. With ACTA/SOPA/PIPA, I don’t know who the real victims would be. Certainly not ‘the worst offenders’. Maybe youth? Political activists? Independent musicians? I don’t know. All I know is that I don’t want to find out.

But ‘pirates’? Nah. Don’t worry about them. The government will ‘stop’ filesharing, just like it ‘stopped’ drug use.

[1] Even if you don’t trust the DEA’s published list of street prices – and I wouldn’t blame you for not – I think it’s clear that the street price for any drug is greater than $0.