Wikipedia, that ever-evolving monument to human collaboration in the cause of global enlightenment, goes completely black tomorrow, Wednesday, Jan. 18. The blackout is a choice, and a brilliant one, made by founder Jimmy Wales in consultation with the whole Wikipedia community. It is a protest, a statement, a symbolic warning to the world of what can happen if governments attack the free flow of information.
The online protest is directed, in particular, against two bills roiling around Congress right now, called SOPA in the House and PIPA in the Senate. Early versions have been tabled. The Obama administration has said that it opposes the current versions, but the opposition was weak and suspiciously nuanced.
People who are digitally aware and politically savvy know that this is only round one. The attempt by governments to block information flows on the Web will continue in new and different bills and regulations. No new laws are even necessary; government possesses the power now to crush the information age on a bureaucratic whim.
In fact, this goes on every day. That’s because governments everywhere, in all times and places, want to control information and will use all their power to do it. It is also because the legal framework that rules how information is produced and distributed is fundamentally corrupted by the fraudulent notion of “intellectual property,” which, if consistently enforced, would put an end to the Internet as we know it…
- Just this past week, a judge ruled that a 23-year-old British college student can be extradited to the U.S. for a 10-year prison sentence, all for linking to other servers that illicitly host copyrighted content;
- Late last year, U.S. officials shut down 150 domains without hearings or trials on grounds that they were suspected of selling goods that violate trademark law. It was done on “Cyber Monday” for a reason: It was an announcement to the digital world that government is in charge;
- In the spring of last year, the FBI arbitrarily shut down every online poker domain they could find and seized the bank accounts of some of the largest and smartest people who play online poker — and all of this happened before the recent announcement that online poker is being re-legalized;
- Earlier in the year, the Department of Homeland Security seized 84,000 domains and put up an announcement that each was trafficking in child porn. Problem: It was all a mistake. Not one was actually guilty. To date, there has been no explanation of how this could have happened;
- In 2010, the feds seized some 73,000 domains for the crime of linking to content that was said to be distributed illegally in violation of copyright.
Already, the damage of this sort of thing is enormous. Ten years ago, the Internet represented liberation, a new frontier of innovation, commerce, opinion sharing and spontaneous organizing. Today, more and more people are consumed by fear. Bloggers are unclear about what existing law does or does not allow. No one knows for sure how to define “fair use.” The deepest pockets are winning case after case. Faced with this uncertainty, many are choosing less over more content — which is exactly what the government and private monopolists want.
The Wikipedia protest is a way of saying: If this kind of thing continues and ends up institutionalized in new legislation, there will be no more Wikipedia, which is the No. 1 content-rich site on the Web and the main way people learn today (how far we’ve come from the debunking that was common only five years ago).
And this is just one example. Individual blogs would only contain government-approved content. Search engines would only produce only government-approved sites. Digital entrepreneurship would be suffocated by fears of threats, confiscations and jails. It is hard to see how even Facebook and Twitter could survive.
It is just marvelous that Wikipedia has taken this bold direction, and it is only possible because of the unique nature of the media in question. Many large businesses during the 1930s tried their best to protest New Deal price controls. But they could hardly shut down their giant stores. The revenue loss would have been devastating, and the victims would have been the employees. So in the end, the private sector was forced to submit to the controls. It was the same in the 1970s with wage and price controls. How could the merchants resist?
But digital enterprises are in a different position entirely. They can vanish with a few clicks, giving the world a conjectural look at what happens when the state attacks the lifeblood of innovation and progress. Small changes in the law can have a gigantic effect. Just as one click can shut down this site, one law can do the same.
It is not only Wikipedia. Others are doing the same. WordPress, the open-source platform that powers nearly a quarter of new websites and has the most-popular content management system on the Web, has also stepped out in front with a call for action: “Normally, we stay away from… politics here at the official WordPress project…Today, I’m breaking our no-politics rule…How would you feel if the Web stopped being so free and independent? I’m concerned — freaked right the heck out about the bills that threaten to do this, and as a participant in one of the biggest changes in modern history, you should be, too.”
There are many such examples. And even if successful, it is not enough. With or without SOPA, digital freedom is under attack. For example,. ICANN, the gateway for all domain registration, is now requiring a verified official identity, supplied by government, for domain ownership. This change sets the stage for continuing shutdowns and strangulation.
The struggle is intensifying, and the sides are very clear: It is the government and old-line media companies that depend on the state’s laws versus everyone else. Everyone else consists of the independently active, privately owned global society that lives and thrives in the digital age. The astonishing innovations of this age have taught an entire generation about the miraculous power of information generation and delivery, about the capabilities embedded in the spontaneous actions of individuals, about the capacity of people around the world to generate order and progress through cooperation and exchange.
The notable thing is that the Web as we know it has been built by private hands working together, not by bureaucrats and politicians. This is the great lesson that our Jetsons world has taught us, and it points to a truth that all governments want to suppress: namely, that order is the daughter of liberty. How dare the bureaucrats and politicians presume to be the lords of what they had nothing to do with creating!
If government gets its way with this legislation and these overall trends, the costs will be immense and tragically unseen. Digital media and information freedom is directly and indirectly responsible for most of the economic growth we’ve experienced over the last 20 years. Without it, government controls, taxes, regulations and wars would have instituted a new dark age by now.
For government to attack Internet freedom today would be akin to burning the seventh-century manuscripts of St. Isidore of Seville, who produced, in the hardest times, the book that summarized all the knowledge of the ancient world (a Wikipedia of his time) and remains a primary source today.
It would be like murdering Venerable Bede in the eighth century, so that he could not have written his history of England that passed on knowledge and wisdom in the darkest of times.
It would be like smashing the 15th-century Gutenberg presses so that printing could have never gotten off the ground.
Historians constantly remind us that all great leaps in human history are inspired by the sharing and spreading of information. This is the precondition. When the first crusaders returned with new manuscripts from the ancient world, we began to see the first signs of the birth of modernity in the West. When populations moved to cities where they could leave behind their isolation and collaborate with others, economic growth followed. And when the Internet blasted down the barriers around the world and allowed anyone to discover new ideas, we saw a new dawn of technology and efficiency.
Information is the most-valuable commodity, and one that so happens to be infinitely reproducible. But today, governments have rallied around this notion of “intellectual property” and used it as an excuse to set up monopolies and censor ideas. We’ll never be safe from this kind of legislation and arbitrary dictate until this fallacy is pulled up from its very roots and we are better able to distinguish between real and fake property rights.
The two dominant trends of our time are, on the one hand, the darkening of the physical world ruled by governments and, on the other hand, the re-enlightening of the world thanks to the spontaneous order of digital media controlled by everyone else. Governments are seeking to drag it down and shut off the lights. The protests against these proposed controls constitute a mighty statement that we will not let the raiders, the barbarians, the vandals, have their way.