The Importance of Ending the Internet as We Know It

By Neil Turkewitz

Copyright is not a private exclusionary property interest that needs to be weighed against the public interest. To be clear, it is indeed an exclusionary property interest (at least in theory) but it does not exist in opposition to the interest of the public. To my mind, it is indisputable, if rarely observed or acknowledged, that the public at large has a significant, indeed fundamental, stake in ensuring conditions that incentivize and nourish original creative expression. Technological developments of the past 20 years have provided astonishing new tools for the distribution of creative materials. These tools, properly harnessed, could have fueled the development of a new cultural renaissance of unprecedented cultural diversity, scale and scope. Sadly, the majority of working musicians, songwriters and artists, instead of participating in this potential celebration of human creativity, have experienced a slow and steady decline in the ability to earn a living. Excitement about the potential to reach new audiences has largely faded — even as those audiences have indeed grown — due to the structural disconnect between use and value. In short, for most in the creative world, the past 20 years could be seen as a series of backwards steps, or missed opportunities, for which a course correction is desperately needed.

It is against this background that governments around the world, with leadership by the European Commission, have recognized the need to rebalance the equation in an effort to ensure that creators are able to realize more of the value generated by the use of their original works. Those that care about the arts, about artists, and about the joy of free expression, should be celebrating these developments. Yet instead, what we are more likely to hear are expressions of the regressive and reductive notion that any change from the status quo is going to lead us down slippery slopes into an Orwellian nightmare of control. That requiring some control is the same thing as requiring total control. And in pure Wonderland fashion, that the protection of expression is itself a restriction on expression. Addressing the responsibility of platform operators to achieve a more accountable internet ecosystem is clearly complex and requires nuance and thoughtful deliberation, with due consideration of unintended consequences. But we appear to be unable to have that dialogue. We just get the shrill cries of “ending the internet as we know it”…which, I can’t help to point out, is kind of the object. We do want to end the internet as we know it, and to introduce reforms based on a more mature ideology than Barlow’s Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace which failed to recognize that actions in “cyberspace” have very real effects on the living and breathing on earth. And that freedom without responsibility only rewards the wolves.

There are, however, many legacy internet companies with a vested interest in maintaining freedom for wolves. As a consequence, we see gross mischaracterizations of efforts to introduce accountability. One of their favorite canards is to suggest that the creative community is seeking to push all responsibility for copyright infringement onto platforms, or to protect some legacy business model. But the creative community wants…no, needs, the digital marketplace to be operational and functional. It is, and will be, the lifeblood for the creative community. But the point here is that NO ONE in the private or public sector, including the European Commission, is proposing any such legislative change. The creative community wants nothing more than a reasonable partnership with the companies involved in the distribution of creative works. But a reasonable partnership must be based on shared responsibilities, not unilateral takings built on engineered blindness.

I call upon all parties to be part of the community demanding meaningful progress in driving accountability in the internet ecosystem, and not defending the status quo which rewards irresponsible conduct on the part of legacy internet companies. We can do better, and build a future that encourages innovation and allows creators to share more fairly in the value generated from the use of their works. It is incredibly hard to make a living through one’s creativity in the best of circumstances. At a minimum, societies can ill afford to make this even more difficult by clinging to outdated legislation that effectively forces creators to subsidize giant tech companies. This is the moment for creative disruption that favors the people. Since creators are not in the habit of creating in order to keep things from being accessed, isn’t it reasonable to surmise that in a properly functioning marketplace, effective licensing would be optimized? We need to stand united in demanding the technology neutral application of legal principles, and rejecting the pseudo-populist form of Internet exceptionalism that undermines markets and persons.

We are not the guardians of the past campaigning against progress — we are the champions of an ideology to build the kind of future that sustains creativity and empowers individual voices. A technological future built on consent rather than theft masquerading as innovation. We embrace the potential of technologies to improve the human condition. The creative community is in the business of original expression — not the preservation of artifacts. Let’s end the “internet as we know it,” and build something more empowering.