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Why Arab revolutions signal the end of copyright
The revolutions that have rocked the Arab world have been a wake-up call for tyrants and despots. They hold important truths for the future of copyright too. As brave dissidents and reformers took to the streets of Cairo and Benghazi, using the Internet to co-ordinate and spread their message to the wider world, totalitarian leaders had no choice.
They turned off the Internet.
Powerless to halt the spread of news of the protests, and even more afraid of the reaction to footage of violent clampdowns by government forces, dictators came to a chilling conclusion. They could no longer control the media. Accustomed to controlling the press and television stations within their borders, they found that the word of revolution was spreading through Twitter and Facebook, through the web and the browser, through brave individuals smuggling footage over the border to international television stations like Al-Jazeera. Who promptly broadcast it back into the country.
While the revolutions were not “Twitter” revolutions, they demonstrated the important truth that no-one can control the flow of information any more.
Not even dictators.
The reasons for this lie in the fundamental architecture of the web. ARPAnet, the precursor to the world wide web, was designed to be “packet-switched”, not “circuit-switched”. This meant that if a communications link broke down, the data would find an alternative route, bypassing the broken node. A useful side-effect was that the network would still function in the event that a nuclear war obliterated key communications interchanges, unlike a traditional telephone network.
Fast forward to 2011, and that infrastructure is still in place. The Internet can route round almost any damage and deliver its packets of information.
To liberal democracies the world over, this is seen as a great boon. No longer can autocrats limit what their citizens learn. They can’t hide their misdeeds through state control of the media (although mass media is still the main way in which news is disseminated in most countries in the world). The US government has even funded research into secure networks such as Tor which are explicitly designed to enable individuals to share information hidden from the prying eyes of state cyberwarriors.
In the end, these information sharers will win. As John Gilmore, one of the founders of the Electronic Frontiers Foundation, put it,
“the Net interprets censorship as damage and routes round it.”
No wonder the toppled leaders felt the need to turn the Internet off.
Why this matters to content companies
The reasons why the Internet is so scary to dictators are exactly the same reasons why it is so terrifying to content companies which see scarce availability and copyright enforcement as the cornerstone of their business model.
The regimes in Egypt and Libya realised that censorship was no longer possible.
Censorship can be defined as “government stopping users from spreading information and content amongst themselves”. Copyright is “corporations and individual creators (with the backing of law) stopping users spreading information and content amongst themselves”.
Can the Net tell the difference?
I doubt it.
Digital Rights Management companies say that they have proprietary systems designed to protect copyrighted content from unauthorised access. In the short-term, these technologies may even work. Campaigns of education and enforcement may slow the steady stream of consumers who expect digitally-distributed content to be significantly cheaper than physical goods (or even free).
In the long run, however, companies relying on technology to restrict access to content that is trivially easy to share and circulate are on to a loser. The structure of the Internet, so useful and cost-effective for content distribution, is a fundamental barrier.
There are solutions. They do not involve fighting tooth and nail to keep existing business models. It involves adapting to the truth of the Internet – that sharing is easy, natural and unstoppable – and embracing the free, easy distribution that sharing represents.
The trick is to find a way to generate substantial revenues in the new model. That will be the subject of my column in the next issue.