“The Internet is a series of tubes invented by Al Gore.”
If you get the joke references in that answer, then you probably understand all the issues I will try to raise in this post. But even if you use the Internet on a daily basis through e-mail or your favorite Facebook games, you may be hearing some of the following for the first time.
The Internet is a technological marvel that, as with most marvels, evolved. Now, the timeframe is so compressed that it may resemble intelligent design more than evolution, but let’s just assume that the incremental improvements happened quickly and that there were more than a few innovators involved. Most people think of the Internet and the World Wide Web as one and the same. That’s fine for most purposes these days.
What’s more interesting though, as the recent debates about censorship to battle copyright infringement have shown, is that the Internet is actually a belief system. The way it grew up was around trust and sharing. It has been abused by spammers and scam artists, but mostly it thrives because of the goodness and fairness of the majority of people.
I strongly believe that people should be compensated for the work they do. I see the “Occupy” movement’s difficulty with the richest 1% getting richer off the backs of the 99%. I also see a strong parallel between that argument and the corporations that are the “content industry” getting rich off the backs of artists. Copyright lasts so long now that it has nothing to do with ensuring that an artist is fairly compensated for their contributions to culture. It is really a way for people who can afford to control distribution channels to make money off the artist’s work (70 or more years after the artist is dead). The Queen Anne Statute (when copyright was first introduced) allowed for the artists to get a temporary monopoly on their artistic expressions (not ideas, by the way, only expressions of ideas) so they could make some money and at the same time contribute to culture. After 14 years, when the artist has made a chunk of money from his or her creation, the art would fall into the public domain. There it would be enjoyed by all and (most importantly) re-mixed and improved upon by the next generation of artists.
The Internet brought along the potential for an amazing resurgence of creative talent. Cheap production and even cheaper distribution could have allowed for artists to create amazing high quality stuff, get it out there, monetize it quickly, and then the next generation would take over. Instead we have big corporations doing their utmost to lock down all creative output for multiple generations. The examples that really freak me out are the Walt Disney movies like Cinderella and Snow White which were stories in the public domain that Disney used to build an incredibly successful business; now any attempt by someone to put out content based on those same public domain stories are challenged by the Disney lawyers. If things worked the way they were originally supposed to, Disney’s own versions would be in the public domain by now. Remember, since corporations are considered people under the law, the copyright will now last until 70 or more years after the Disney corporation dies.
To stop online copyright infringement, the US government is considering legislation that will allow companies like Disney the ability to cut off funding and “erase from the Internet” any site found to be “facilitating infringement”. There’s enough ambiguity in the law that Google or flickr could easily be categorized as a “rogue” site. The way they will accomplish the “erasing” is to muck around with the Domain Name System (DNS), the technical backbone of the Internet that converts the Web site name you type or paste into your browser into the IP addresses (numbers) that computers can understand. The legislation breaks the Internet technically and shatters the underlying belief system. No trust. No sharing.
It should be interesting to see how we answer this question in a few years: “What is the Internet?” If the companies pushing this legislation have their way, the answer may be: “A broadcast medium used by big corporations to deliver content to a paying audience.” Surely this would be a better answer: “A communications medium that continues to allow each member of the public an equal voice, making it the greatest enabler of democracy and artistic expression the world has ever known.”