By Neil Turkewitz
The biggest story of 2017? To my mind, there is no contest — the broad emergence of an awareness that the irresponsibility masquerading as Internet freedom represented a threat to global societies and to cherished aspects of our humanity, and that a course correction was badly needed. While recognition of the fact that rewarding lack of accountability would likely incentivize anti-social and illegal conduct took longer than it should have, such an awareness came to fruition throughout 2017. Whether motivated by concerns about sex trafficking or the prevalence of other internet-enabled crimes, fake news, foreign government interference in elections, monopoly or monopsony power, or the perceived political or cultural biases of platforms, the question at the end of 2017 wasn’t whether the current legal framework for platform responsibility should be amended, but how. It became clear that the twin pillars upholding the current lack of accountability in the internet ecosystem — Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act and Section 512 of the DMCA, each of which was adopted at the dawn of the commercial internet, would need to be reexamined and a new framework established. Ideas ranged from minor course corrections such as amending Section 230 to address issues related to sex trafficking (SESTA) and changes to the DMCA to require greater use of technical tools to prevent infringement going beyond mere takedown, to proposals to broadly regulate the operation of platforms given perceived monopoly power over the last mile (access to, and influence over, users). In short, there appeared to be universal acknowledgement that the status quo wasn’t working, and some — as yet unspecified — change was needed.
But apparently, if not unsurprisingly, this acknowledgement that the status quo needs to be disrupted isn’t quite shared by everyone. In an end of the year post by EFF’s Jeremy Malcom entitled “Time to Rethink Copyright Safe Harbors? 2017 in Review,” Malcolm writes: “They [safe harbors such as the provisions of Section 512 of the DMCA] are as vital to the Internet today as they have ever been.” His argument is summed up neatly here: “Without that legal protection, it would be impossible for such platforms to operate as they do today.” Well, yeah. That’s the very point of effecting change — to modify how platforms operate. Malcolm apparently looks at the internet and sees the flowering of culture and the emancipation of humanity. I want his internet. And I am prepared to work to achieve it rather than pretending it is our reality, and without employing absurd reductionism as if we were holding a referendum on whether technological progress and the internet are good or bad things. The internet is a remarkable tool for expanding communications and access to information in a truly transformational manner. The question is: can we be better stewards, and how can we most fully achieve its potential for enhancing the welfare of societies. We should not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, but nor should we let the good stand in the way of the better.
It would also be nice, but alas probably a bridge too far, to engage in dialogue about solutions without fear-mongering and labeling. In order for Malcolm’s narrative to hold, he has to take the individual creator out of the equation and to pretend that somehow the cultural marketplace is of no concern to actual creators — only to the ominous dark media lords, the dreaded “Big Content.” The ones who brought you SOPA. You know who I am talking about. The Man. Aiming only to defend a failing and exploitative business model. Malcolm works hard to reinforce this false picture, repeatedly referring to “copyright industry lobbyists,” “industry representatives,” “Big Content,” and of course, EFF’s favorite…”monopoly rents.” And suggesting that these industry trolls working in secret to destroy the internet would have gone unnoticed but for EFF’s vigilance. All of which leads to his central lie:
“But Big Content isn’t satisfied with such laws, because they place responsibility on copyright holders to request the removal of infringing content, and because the availability of free, user-uploaded content supposedly depresses the value of mainstream, paid entertainment. The content industry thinks a filtered, regulated Internet that suppresses user-uploaded content will deliver them higher revenues, and they describe the absence of these imaginary monopoly rents as a “value gap.”
There is no part of this that reflects the world we actually inhabit.
1-Large media companies (whatever that means) are not alone in calling for reform of safe harbors. A quick review of comments and submissions in the EU and US will reveal a creative community unified in its support for reform: businesses and labor, major studios and indies, individual creators and trade associations. And our problem is not that safe harbors place responsibility on copyright owners to request removal, but rather that they fail to place corresponding obligations on platforms to take meaningful action when they know, or should know, of infringing materials. Existing safe harbors in the US, EU and elsewhere create incentives for platforms to avoid knowledge of infringement, and then only obligate platforms to take remedial action which fails to provide an actual remedy. We need to reset the incentives to breathe life into the legislative intent behind existing legislation to promote cooperation in addressing infringement and expanding the digital marketplace.
2-The notion that the creative community is worried about competition to “mainstream, paid entertainment” from free user-uploaded content is truly outrageous. The creative community has no issue with creators determining that they want to offer their works for free. The problem is when users decide to upload the works of others without the creator’s permission. And yes, forcing creators to directly compete against unauthorized versions of their own works is both prejudicial and fundamentally unfair. That doesn’t require a lot of imagination, just a basic sense of fairness and justice.
3-Malcom asserts that there are two alternatives: his free and open internet, or the copyright industries’ filtered, regulated internet that suppresses freedom of expression and delivers monopoly rents. Reductionism at its very worst. The status quo, or some Orwellian nightmare of control. But of course, this is pure fantasy. The core issues related to safe harbors are not about regulation, but rather address the development of a technology-neutral way to achieve the kind of responsibility we would expect in the offline environment. Not more, and not less. To eliminate incentives for recklessness and willful blindness. And yes, to change the status quo. That’s what gets Malcom — he clings to the world he knows, and lives on a slippery slope. But when we resist doing what’s right out of fear of some future unknown, then something is fundamentally wrong.
An article published just yesterday neatly captured our reality: “The DMCA and CDA protections enabled a few Silicon Valley giants to become sinfully rich, with a concentration of power not seen since the 1920s. The digital revolution could have succeeded without the ‘disruption’ and their disregard for copyright and content creators.”
I have a modest proposal for 2018: let’s abandon evangelical fervor in favor of policy-making grounded in the observable universe. Let’s acknowledge that lack of accountability will produce unaccountable actions. And let’s be prepared to challenge the status quo to produce the kind of outcomes that enhance societal welfare. A recent article in Ars Technica entitled “How do you change the most important law in Internet history? Carefully.” While the underlying notion that Section 230 is “the most important law in Internet history” represents, as Devlin Hartline has noted, a fetishization of Section 230, I nevertheless agree with the proposition that we must exercise care. But Ars, unlike EFF, doesn’t ask whether the present framework should be amended, only how.