Should any Internet freedom ever be sacrificed to fight piracy?

Summary:SOPA-like legislation wasn't the right way to fight piracy. But won't a better solution still require some compromises?

Lawrence Dignan

Lawrence Dignan

Decidedly Yes

or

A Resounding No

Zack Whittaker

Zack Whittaker

Best Argument: A Resounding No

The moderator has delivered a final verdict.

Opening Statements

It isn't the Wild West anymore

Larry Dignan: The Internet has grown up with this somewhat ludicrous idea that there's this heavy dose of freedom and anything goes. The reality is that every entity that plays on the Internet---advertisers, content providers, information producers, service providers and the U.S. government---all have a role in tracking what you do and roles to thwart piracy. The Internet just isn't Wild West anymore although some folks like to portray it that way. If we want professional content and capital risk, we have to fight piracy. This argument also goes beyond Hollywood and the music industry. Pirated software costs technology giants a bundle too. Will that anti-piracy movement mean that some freedom falls away? Yes, for people who are pirates/criminals. Criminals sacrifice freedom in real life. Is the Internet all that different?

For me, the question about whether Internet freedom can ever be sacrificed for piracy is decidedly yes. We just have to be smart about who loses the freedom.
 

We would not stand for it

Zack Whittaker: The answer of course is simply a resounding "no". As seen in recent weeks with the SOPA and PIPA protests, the Web would become a stagnating pool of offline sites and 404 messages.

Pandora's box was opened with peer-to-peer file-sharing during the late '90's. Nothing was done at the time, and now our respective governments are trying to claw back what little control it has on Web users' actions.

We as a society have seen what a "free and open" Web is---something the founding fathers of the Internet prescribed---and it would be inconceivable to see a fragmented, distorted and 'broken' online world.

Simply put, we would not stand for it. We can only really miss something once it has gone, and as seen with recent protests, a significant minority speaking on the vast majority would not let such infringed freedoms happen.

If it started with piracy, it would never stop.

The Rebuttal

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Thanks for joining the debate

    Larry and Zack will post their closing arguments tomorrow and I will declare a winner on Thursday. Between now and then, don't forget to cast your vote and jump into the discussion below to post your thoughts on this topic.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Your two most important points

    When it comes to Internet freedom and anti-piracy, what would you sum up as the two most important issues that people need to keep in mind?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    My two

    For me it's the right to make money at what you want on the Internet. Guidelines that preserve that right with some common sense are good. Anti-piracy is an important issue, but one that has to be evaluated with care from all stakeholders. Now tech seems to have a voice maybe something rational emerges.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    If you thought SOPA was bad...

    Firstly: Internet and Web access is not yet a fundamental human right. Until the U.S. plays ball and follows suit alongside some European countries that have already made such a declaration, the Web will remain an important and useful commodity, but something governments will seek to control. Secondly: Just because SOPA and PIPA were shelved, we still have a heavily watered down but nevertheless potent ACTA agreement, and a very nasty OPEN bill to battle. Anti-piracy law will not go away. It will keep coming. So be prepared, and get ready to fight.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Your take on the anti-SOPA movement?

    How would you characterize the grass-roots movement that got the U.S. Congress to abandon SOPA?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    A start

    I think the movement was powerful and a good moment for tech. I also think its effects were vastly overrated. Congress caved because they saw big pissed off donors from the tech industry. In an election year who wants to be the dolt that destroyed the Internet? The jury is seriously out on tech's ability to derail stupid legislation. Let's face it: Bad legislation is everywhere and the tech industry has to play Whac-A-Mole.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    It was simply beautiful.

    We can thank mostly Reddit for inspiring and organising the mass-shutdown of websites on 'Black Wednesday'. With an online population of around 35 million people, it represents 10 percent of the U.S. population. It was a minority, but a significant and powerful minority. Who cares if Anonymous takes down a few company's websites for an hour because they supported SOPA? Reddit itself is a collective of like-minded, clued-up people who arguably represent Web users better than any Congressperson ever could. It was these people who campaigned vehemently on our behalf, and pushed for change, and pressured even U.S. Congresspeople into changing their stance about SOPA.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    The cost of piracy

    Getting back to Internet freedoms, what are the costs of not doing anything? In the digital age where copies don't cost a thing, does piracy truly drive up the cost of goods for honest customers?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Costs

    The costs of doing nothing are pretty low in the U.S. Piracy just isn't a huge issue relative to China. Can you imagine Microsoft's earnings if piracy in China was eradicated? You could argue that those piracy costs are passed along to customers anywhere. So yes, to some degree I think consumers have been screwed. How much is debatable. I have a tough time seeing companies passing along piracy savings to consumers. However, if corporations cut down on piracy, invest more and hire more people that works for me.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    How do you compete with 'free'?

    Piracy probably does drive up the cost. The problem that many in the music and film industry faces is: "How do you compete with free?" Others are looking towards different models of selling content---such as Radiohead allowing users to 'pay what you want' for one of their albums, or Louis C.K. giving away his DRM-free standup special for only $5---have still made the mega bucks away from the 'traditional' model. We, as ordinary Web users, have adapted. The media industry needs to adapt, too. You can stop a person running out of a store clutching half a dozen stolen DVDs, but you cannot stop millions of people from torrenting a Hollywood movie.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    What about the low-cost argument?

    What's your take on the argument that if companies lower the cost and make it easier to buy something digitally than it is to pirate it then most people would rather pay a fair price than steal?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's a valid argument

    I think that argument makes sense largely based on the iTunes precedent. 99 cent songs thwarted piracy in a big way because there wasn't a lot of reason to steal songs. There's still piracy, but the music industry has a growth stream at least. Digital is still disruptive though.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    Industry needs to adapt.

    Again this falls back down to the model of things. Louis C.K. and Radiohead, amongst others, dare to break away from the rest of the mould, and they still made heavy profits. iTunes made a difference, as Larry points out, but pirating is still so easy. Instead of government's enacting harsh, and draconian legislation, industry needs to make it easier to access content. iTunes is popular, but it's not universal.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Does anti-piracy actually hurt the honest people?

    What do you say about the argument that most copy protections and anti-piracy measures end up hurting honest consumers more than pirates since the small percentage of people who refuse to pay are usually clever enough to find another way to get the content for free?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    A rat hole

    I suppose that's possible, but the argument is a rat hole. It almost sounds like a drug legalization argument. If copy protections are done right I'm not sure people care. Amazon's Kindle format is technically closed. I never noticed. I do know when push came to shove on my e-book I went for the DRM. Not sure I'd go that route again---probably wouldn't---just to see what would happen saleswise.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    I think we agree.

    I will not be the first person to slam in a CD to a computer and find that, "this disk cannot be played", because of a digital copy protection problem, and will surely not be the last. It???s infuriating. At least with pirated content---even if you own the CD anyway---you can transfer it onto any media player or computer without restriction or hassle. Pick your favourite movie from a torrent site. You download it, you open it, and you watch it immediately. With a DVD from a shop---that you bought with your hard earned cash---you are forcibly reminded for first 20 minutes not to share or the DVD you just bought. By then, you've already eaten your popcorn.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is the world moving away from open systems?

    Are open systems falling out of favor in the technology world? The world's most valuable tech company (Apple) runs a tightly controlled ecosystem, Amazon runs closed systems, and even Google -- a former champion of open systems -- has become increasingly less open with Android and is arguably betraying the open ethos by tightly integrating Google+ into Google search to the detriment of other social networks.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Time frame matters

    The key to answering your question revolves around timelines. In the short term I'd say closed systems have an advantage. Apple can integrate its software and hardware better. It just works. Amazon's system is really about commerce. And Google+ I addressed earlier. I think over time open wins out, but there are periods of time where closed looks better. Ultimately it's possible that a hybrid model emerges. Apple isn't closed to developers per se. I view Apple as hybrid on the closed system argument.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    Yes, but not for long

    As Larry said, because Facebook and Google can't get along, it means the users ultimately suffer. At least European's may benefit from rules set forward in the recently proposed data protection laws, forcing social networks into opening up their data controls to allow users to export their data to other services. For Americans, however, this still seems to be a far off dream.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Threats to the open web

    What are the biggest threats to the open web?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Threats and an addendum

    To me the biggest threat to the open Web are giants doing their best to keep you locked into their owned and operated sites. Google's treatment of Google+ in its search results gave me pause. However, Facebook isn't exactly giving Google access either. Everyone has their stack of stuff they are trying to sell. In that regard, the Web really isn't that different from what enterprise giants such as SAP, Oracle and a bunch of others are doing---sell you a stack of stuff. To get to Zack's point before. Yes, there are questions about the open Web in the Middle East and elsewhere, but the ability of folks to work around the restrictions indicates to me that there's an open path somewhere.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    Hollywood

    It is not about who or what is the greatest threat, per se, rather it is about who holds the greater weakness. Government is the weakest link in the chain of accountability. Tens of millions of dollars were spent by the MPAA, RIAA and other rights-holding groups to lobby members of the U.S. Congress into changing the law. While Congresspeople are ultimately accountable to the people---and not just those who voted for them---they also have to take into account the views of the people and organisations that funded their campaigns into public office. This is government lobbying. Having said that, non-accountable bodies such as rights-holding groups have the back of the record and film industry, and the people can do nothing about them. I therefore see music and film industry together as the greatest threats to the Web at the moment.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Is the web open?

    Let's talk about the open web. Would you still characterize today's web as fundamentally open? If so, what needs to be in place to keep the web an open platform?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    It's open

    I would characterize the Web as open. Open to me means that there are connections between systems. Open standards are everywhere. It's not perfect, but just think about the APIs that are flying around between systems. The Web needs open standards to remain open and parties that see advantages of cooperating at times.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    It's not open

    It depends on whether you mean the Internet as an infrastructure, whether you mean individual access to the Web, or how online access is allowed or restricted on a country-by-country basis. Remember, we still have half a dozen countries still recovering from the Arab Spring. Internet access was blocked in entire swathes by repressive governments, and interim administrations are still dealing with major political issues of transparency, liberty, and freedom. The Internet is an open network in the midst of a control-struggle by global authorities. And while globally it is mostly open, it can still be controlled within respective borders. Just look at China.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Time for guidelines?

    So, if we agree that the first principle I mentioned is the ultimate goal here, then can we agree that we've reached a point on the Web where some kinds of guidelines are needed to protect the rights of both average citizens and the organizations that are investing so much into the Web? Explain your perspective.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Guidelines good. Congress bad.

    I think it's time for some kind of guidelines that are reasonable and make sense. The problem with SOPA-ish legislation that it was cooked up on the sly by the music and movie industry and its cronies. The tech industry woke up and realized the side effects would be huge. So there was a big protest effort that seems to have worked for a bit. These guidelines have to be fairly loose or anyone with a vendetta can take down a Web site. It's time for guidelines, but there's a big disconnect behind government's ability to be reasonable---generally speaking pols are dolts---and enforcement as well as the side effects.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    We already have guidelines.

    We have laws. Granted, some ignore those laws, but punishing the whole Web should not even be considered an option. Most of these organisations are U.S. based, and they in turn lobby the U.S. government or members of Congress. Often what happens in the U.S. affects every other country's citizens as a result. We have seen intense U.S. lobbying in the recent proposals for an updated European data protection laws, along with U.S. threats of imposing trade sanctions in Spain, forcing the country into adopting tough SOPA-like anti-piracy laws (known as "Sinde law"). Rights-holder groups in their lobbying efforts are disregarding citizens' right to a free and open Web by favouring the protection of their own revenue streams.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Freedoms and rights

    Everyone agrees that freedom is a good thing, but freedoms are always limited once they infringe on someone else's rights. Isn't that the fundamental issue at stake here? It's about where to draw the line of where Internet rights end and infringing on the rights of others begin, right?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Criminals don't get freedom

    All freedoms are limited when laws are broken. The fundamental issue at work here is whether you have the right to create content and make a living at it. Without profits there are no incentives to create content. The Internet is portrayed as this free place where anything goes. It's just not the case. There are a lot of things that aren't necessarily cool or legal to do. You download a movie illegally you cost someone money. Ditto for a song. That artist was screwed by you. The line for me is where people can't make money doing what they love. For the record, this debate feels like a modern day dunk tank with 90 percent of you agreeing with me. My stance is that piracy is bad and with a decent law there's a balance that can be hit. The ability of our government to have a clue isn't the issue here---that could be another debate. There would be no debate if government's ability to perform were in question. We all know that answer.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    Simplistically, yes.

    But the problem is there are no rules of the web, only the rules of law. And, with a borderless, global network, any Internet-affecting law will invariably have a global reach; whether it intends to or not. The U.S. has been pushing its anti-piracy laws on citizens for years, from DMCA through to SOPA. But the U.S. tries to police the world all too often with its legislation, and what the U.S. believes is 'right' is often not the case with other countries, particularly Europe. Freedom of speech and expression is a wonderful right to have. But with such freedoms come inevitable restrictions. Why can I not tweet a link to a copyrighted file on a torrent website, but a pastor from Florida can legally threaten to burn the Qu'ran?

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Mic check...

    Are both of my debaters online?

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    I'm here

    Wondering if this is the equivalent of an editor dunk tank. But that's ok, I'm going to kick Zack's arse crowd be damned.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    I'm here, too.

    Unlike you, I'm no digital dinosaur, Dignan. Best of luck, you'll need it.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

  • Great Debate Moderator

    Understanding freedom of speech

    Would you agree that part of the problem here is that a lot of web citizens tend to misunderstand the concept of freedom of speech? For example, it doesn't mean you can say anything you want on a private forum like ZDNet. It means that if you don't like the way the ZDNet forums are moderated, then you are free to start your own site.

    Posted by Jason Hiner

    Freedom of speech and more

    I think citizens get the general concept of freedom of speech. I'm free to roam the streets, think what I want, say what I want and practice any religion I choose. I'm not free to steal your stuff as I'm roaming the neighborhood. That's the brick and mortar version of piracy. The Internet concept of freedom is that you can do anything without any costs. It's almost laughable that everyone thinks that the Internet is free. You pay with your data. Google isn't free. Yahoo isn't free. And Facebook isn't free. You pay with your information and agree to be tracked.

    Lawrence Dignan

    I am for Decidedly Yes

    Define: 'free speech'

    The definition of freedom of speech is wishy-washy at best, and varies massively. Does anyone really know what the definition of free speech is? How far does it reach, exactly? There seems to be a top-level-down process of 'law' that dictates the level of freedom of speech, with exceptions. It then gets watered down as it passes through a site's terms and conditions, which in itself restricts users on what they can and cannot say. People claim their right to freedom of speech is being infringed, and perhaps it is. Ultimately, on private 'property'---even if it is an online property like ZDNet---some things fall to the discretion of the people upstairs, so to speak.

    Zack Whittaker

    I am for A Resounding No

Closing Statements

There needs to be a middle ground

Lawrence Dignan

The Internet should be open and free and all that wonderful stuff. But the reality is that piracy is out there and there has to be some common sense guidelines to prevent it. Why? If there are no incentives to create great content you'll be stuck with crap. Where the debate should really focus on is how some middle ground can be achieved. SOPA was a debacle that was created behind the scenes. Unfortunately, government and common sense are two things that often don't go together.

 

It's not the tool that needs fixing

Zack Whittaker

The Internet should be free and open. Tea tastes better with a dash of milk. Cows like water. It's a given, really. Instead of censorship and domain-name blocking, change needs to come from the very heart of who we are and what we do. Just because you hit your thumb with a hammer doesn’t mean you punish the nail. It’s not the tool that needs fixing. It’s us. Ultimately, our behaviour needs to change, and with that, the music and film industry needs to adapt first. Censorship is for the oppressive regimes. Let’s not bring China’s firewall to the United States, please. 

 

Don't punish those who play by the rules

Jason Hiner

I'm really glad that we did this debate and brought some reasonable dialog to what is a highly-charged and often irrational subject. Ultimately, Larry is right that the Internet is badly in need of some common sense guidelines to help protect copyright holders in order to incent people to create, innovate, and market their products. But, as Larry also pointed out, getting today's governments to produce common sense guidelines is a rare if not impossible thing. As a result, giving up any freedoms to fight piracy usually ends up punishing the people who already play by the rules, while the pirates find new ways around the rules. For that reason, Zack is on the right side of this one.

 

Topics: Great Debate

About

Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the upcoming book, Follow the Geeks (bit.ly/ftgeeks).

zdnet_core.socialButton.googleLabel Contact Disclosure

Kick off your day with ZDNet's daily email newsletter. It's the freshest tech news and opinion, served hot. Get it.

Related Stories

The best of ZDNet, delivered

You have been successfully signed up. To sign up for more newsletters or to manage your account, visit the Newsletter Subscription Center.
Subscription failed.