“It’s called stealing or piracy, as if sharing a wealth of knowledge were the moral equivalent of plundering a ship and murdering its crew. But sharing isn’t immoral — it’s a moral imperative. Only those blinded by greed would refuse to let a friend make a copy.” — Aaron Swartz
Federal authorities recently arrested the owner of the website Kickass Torrents, Artem Vaulin. KAT, as it was commonly known, had, following the end of the Pirate Bay and subsequent jailing of its owners in Sweden, become one of the world’s most visited websites and certainly the go-to place for torrents. As the reader is probably aware, there’s no good way to limit the content of a torrent – the torrent protocol is a dumb pipe, similar to other transfer protocols, and simply transfers data. In its case, it uses the power of peer-to-peer networking. Thus the primary use of KAT was “pirated” content, or bootleg copies of music, movies, games, and other forms of intellectual property.
The war on filesharing has gone on for virtually the entirety of the web’s history. In the early days of the Internet, it was commonplace to share code and other things. The spirit of the new generation was, indeed, sharing. As bandwidth increased throughout the 1990s, people moved from using BBS systems and the Kermit protocol to using more advanced ways of sharing, including plainly out on the web. The mid-to-late 1990s is when the FBI began taking it more seriously, at the behest of various industries, including the software industry. This 1997 article from the San Francisco Examiner outlines an important part of the situation:
Accompanied by corporate representatives to identify the software, FBI agents took the computer systems off-line and confiscated the equipment and other documents.
Did the reader catch that? Corporate representatives accompanied the FBI on raids. In all of this anti-piracy business, the FBI has essentially acted as the attack dog of private industry. In the same way that commercial drug manufacturers are a massive lobby in keeping marijuana, the most commonly prosecuted substance in the ongoing “War on Drugs,” intellectual property-based industries have a vested interest in ensuring that there are steep penalties for sharing files. However, it’s not only the actual owners of the content who would like copies of 20-year-old movies to remain at premium prices, but other vendors, including the likes of Netflix and Hulu, as well.
The War on Drugs has been going on since the Nixon administration, and during its 40 years, the rate of drugs entering the country and the rate of drug use have done everything but decline. Some states have begun to rebel, moving toward treatment policies and in the case of marijuana, even legalization. The War on Drugs has nothing to do with morality or public health and everything to do with money. Police agencies nationwide make millions from asset seizure related to drug raids. The end of the drug war would equate to a severe budget gap for some agencies. In a similar way, without the FBI to do their bidding, intellectual property owners would have to find more inventive ways to attract money.
But that’s not really the problem, either. The real problem with both the War on Drugs and the War on Digital Piracy is that they are not winnable wars. You cannot dictate human behavior from on high, and as long as there are networked computers, there will be ways of sharing files. The torrent protocol is only the latest to become popular. This generation also saw Napster, which had a fundamental flaw of being centralized. These efforts by the government are massive wastes of money in the end, at least in accomplishing their goal. This article is not meant to suggest alternative approaches, but rather to underline the parallels of the two movements.
As soon as Kickass Torrents was taken offline, people worldwide began working on clone sites. And, more to the point, KAT was not the only torrent site left standing. IsoHunt is a long-standing provider of torrent files, and Usenet remains another option for those who do not want to buy all their content from the myriad of subscription and a la carte media providers. Information wants to be free, as Stewart Brand said, and by this he did not mean freedom, but free of charge. This argument is based on the idea that the cost of delivering information (or content) has severely dropped over the years, and so too should the cost.
Information wants to be expensive, at the same time, because it is valuable. Brand pointed out that this tension will never go away. In one browser tab a user can acquire a recently released movie for free, and in another tab he can choose to pay for it on Amazon.
The War on Digital Piracy is a war of attrition. Any perceived “gains” are immediately squashed by the proliferation of alternatives. As long as there is a demand for alternative sources of content, people will provide it. Were every torrent site to be taken off the clear net, the dark web could quickly provide alternatives. After all, these sites do not actually serve any content, just links to torrent files and magnet links. The torrent protocol itself does not actually require sites to list the files, and people could continue to distribute them in other ways. No matter what the government does. No matter what the industries do.
Prosecuting people for linking to content is a dangerous constitutional precedent. It’s like saying that giving directions to a criminal is a crime. The prosecution of Artem Vaulin, Fredrik Neij, and Peter Sunde (of the Pirate Bay) is criminal. If anything, the people actually distributing pirated content should be the target of the government. But this also raises the question: should the government be expending precious resources to go to war for industries that make millions and billions of dollars per year, or shouldn’t it be dedicated those resources to more important pursuits, such as anti-terrorism investigations?
Featured image from Shutterstock.