Patrice Riemens on Sun, 13 Jul 2014 21:22:51 +0200 (CEST)

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<nettime> Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium Part Two,

Ippolita Collective, In the Facebook Aquarium Part Two

Pirate parties, or technology in politics (section #6)

2003 saw digital pirates getting on board of Sweden's social-democratic
society. The Pirate Bay indexes torrent files since that year: it saves
name and IP addresses of shared files through the /peer-to-peer torrent/
protocol, a meta-data format that identifies text-, audio-, and video-
files [47]. Shared files are not kept on a centralized, single server:
they are only indexed so as to make them accessible to users. Thus, the
issue of complicity to copyright infringement, which led to Napster's
closure in 2001, and that of Morpheus and Grocker in 2003, as well as of
many other file-sharing systems, is deftly side-stepped. According to the
pirates' reasoning, violations, if they occur, are entirely the users'
responsibility. The Swedish pirates regularly publish on their site the
legal letters they receive (from Microsoft, Apple, Dreamworks, Adobe - to
name just a few), as well as the mocking responses they return to the
technology giants.

But what, then, is the (specific) crime these (particular) pirates stand
accused of? Here, the concept of piracy must be seen in the context of the
conflict between big media enterprises (operating like a cartel) and
people sharing copyright protected files. The organizations representing
the interests of big firms which produce and distribute multi-media
content make use the 'piracy' monicker to stigmatize the theft of
copyrighted content, which, they say, lowers their earnings. Their
argument goes like this: every time someone downloads a copyright
protected film (or an audio file, or a book, or a video game, or ...),
that person will not go to the movies, nor will sHe purchase the product
in any other way. Hence there is an economic prejudice arising from theft.

Let us now admit (for the sake of the argument) that (private) property
should be defended at the point where someone else's interests are at
stake.  The principled ['a priori'] argument that can be put forward
(against this) is that one's budget is the constraining element amidst the
ever increasing proliferation of available content. With other words: if I
have only ten Euros to spend on records, there is no way I will be able to
spend one hundred. But I can download music for free - at the cost of much
lesser quality however, as mp3 cannot compete with a good record player,
nor can video-streaming compare with a cinema screen. Sure, I would like
to have more books, of films, or records/CDs - yet I must limit myself to
what my wallet can bear. Were these contents not for free, I would not
'consume' them. Hence, there is no actual loss of earnings. But there is
also an argument with the benefit of hindsight ['a posteriori']: the ever
growing turnover of the entertainment industry worldwide proves that
cultural contents are a source of profits. Yet greed knows no limit and
the idea that profits can grow exponentially is what makes the culture
majors' bosses nipples hard [##**].

There are also legal reasons making this definition of 'piracy'
problematic. Theft - to call it like that - of a digital good that can be
identically reproduced at very low cost (memory drive plus the electricity
needed to make a copy) is naturally very different from the theft of a non
digital good [48]. A copied file does not take the original away from its
owner. From that follows that intellectual property of this type of goods
needs to be distinguished from the property of non-digital goods. Besides,
making the share of files illegal under any circumstance tends to erase
the difference between commercial and personal use. Yet it is evident that
the re-sale for profit of a copyright-protected digital good and making
use to it without any profit-making aim are very different things
altogether. In fact, it is the architecture of the content distribution
system itself that traditionally makes an extensive personal usage
possible. A book, once bought, can be given away, or read aloud, or lend
out. Its sentences can be memorized, repeated, rehearsed, modified, and
reproduced for personal use. On can even add that to quote that book in
another book is a tribute to the author. In no way can all this be defined
as theft [49].

In Europe and in the United States, never mind the rest of the world, the
law is inadequate. Where (specific, IT-related) law has been enacted it
tends to limit and suppress personal usage for the benefit of media
oligopolies which have found in governments enthusiastic helpers willing
to protect and advance their corporate interests by legislative means. But
far from being universally accepted, allegations and accusations of theft
are raising objections without end. Sites like The Pirate Bay's are true
'repositories of collective actions', to quote the term used by
(sociologist and political scientists) Charles Tilly and Sidney Tarrow
[50]. The massive usage of identical duplication services leads to the
emergence of zones of economic counter-power, something that (economist)
John Kenneth Galbraith has dubbed /compensatory power/ [51], a concept
quite close to the post-marxist 'counter-power'. Such zones

"(...) make possible the emergence of 'autonomous zones' or 'strategic
sovereigns' that resist lines of prevailing power in the /absence/ of
competition, and in the particular example in question - Sweden - in the
presence of state collusion with anti-market forces. The collusion of
governments with oligopolies raises serious problems for
citizen-constituencies, and is discussed as a kind of 'organized crime'
related to a wave of de-democratization. What makes such alliances more
troubling is the fact that file-sharing has not demonstrably 'damaged' the
creative industries as a whole, but appears to have contributed to
world-economic transformations including an increase in creative
production and an expansion and globalization of media markets."[52]

In a landmark decision, the Pirate Bay people were condemned in 2009 to a
prison term (one year) and a hefty fine. This judgment is now being
appealed. Apparently under pressure of powerful cultural lobbies, the
Swedish state went for the repressive approach. However, it turned out
that one of the judges had a (undisclosed) conflict of interests, so the
case is far from clear-cut. Now, having announced the sale of the company,
something that did not happen in the end, The Pirate Bay is still indexing
millions of files. And it continue to inspire fear (and loathing). The
Italian government, for one, decided to block access to the site. Hence
the site is theoretically beyond reach of Italians, but indirect access is
still possible: by making the use of a proxy, e.g. Google Translate, or
other systems, this umpteenth clumsy attempt at censorship can easily be
circumvented [53].

The idea that a swarm of 'netizens' deliberately breaks the law, online,
thus making clear its disagreement with the concentration of economic
power (in the hands of a few actors) is not new. This is clearly something
of a key concept, since pressure from consumers, as for example with
on-line boycotts, can engender real changes. But (on the other hand) it is
much more contentious to affirm, as some political theories inspired by
this phenomenon do, that on-line strikes, calls for action, demos, and
other networked activities, constitute the incubator of a new form popular
sovereignty beyond the traditional forms of the same [54]. As we will see
further on, on-line activism tends to weaken traditional forms of
political commitment. The benefit of this approach is that it redirects
the attention from what is less important - the economic aspect, largely
overstated in this case also - in order to focus on social and political
issues. [I am not totally sure about the meaning of this sentence, which I
have translated quite literally - I'll refer to the authors - transl.]

(to be continued)
Next time: more on Pirate Bay and associated politics.

. . . . . . .

[47] Since 2009 p2p sharing systems have increasingly shifted towards the
use of /magnet links/, the files' traces (/hash/) rather than names and
addresses, substantially reducing metadata flow, and hence bandwidth
demand. The Pirate Bay, like many other similar services started to
promote the use of DHT (/Distributed Hash Table/) and PEX (/Peer
Exchange/) as substitute for traditional centralized /trackers/. Their
main benefit is to avoid the need for users (aka /peers/) to refer to one
single server keeping and distributing the names and traces of torrent
files. Combined with the use of crypto for in- and out-going data flows at
the /peers/ level, decentralized protocols strengthens the network, making
it both safer and more reliable, and, of course, also much less prone to
interception and take-down.
[##**] I playfully borrow this expression from Jean-Louis Gassee, a French-
Californian technology venturist quoted in Wired Magazine (1996):
[48] The commonly applied distinction between so-called material and non-
material (immaterial) goods is not only inappropriate, but also
misleading. It only serves to endorse the balderdash conveyed by the mass
media. Files are not 'immaterial': they are precise sequences of electric
impulses stocked on enhanced silicium supports. And besides you cannot
access them  without computers and networks. And few things are more
material than computers and networks!
[49] Nonetheless, this is exactly what happens in the case of proprietary
programs (software): the Windows ('shrink-wrap') user license states that
you are not the owner of the digital good, but that you are only allowed
to use it, without modifying, copying, or sharing it. Same thing, and
actually even worse, with Apple, whose OS, by the way are derived from now
locked-down software previously distributed under a BSD license.
[50] Charles Tilly & Sidney Tarrow, /Contentious Politics/ Boulder, Paradigm,
[51] see:
[52] Leon Tan, The Pirate Bay, Countervailing power and the problem of
state organized crime, /Ctheory/ November 25, 2010:
[53] see:
[54] Provided one disregards the fighting talk about masses opposing
empires, it makes sense to read Alexander R Galloway's and Eugene
Thacker's /The Exploit. A Theory of Networks, Minneapolis U of Minnesota
Press, 2007. This despite the fact that their argument is rather
sophisticated in the extreme, and actually not a little confused.

Translated by Patrice Riemens
This translation project is supported and facilitated by:
The Institute of Network Cultures, Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences
The Antenna Foundation, Nijmegen
( - Dutch site)
( - english site under construction)
Casa Nostra, Vogogna-Ossola, Italy

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