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Webbed to the cause

Net users and tech firms united to defeat the US pro-patent bills. Sreeram Chaulia writes.
None | By Sreeram Chaulia
UPDATED ON FEB 02, 2012 01:22 AM IST

Is the internet socialist? So it appeared, when a mini-revolution was achieved by agitated netizens and their allies in technology companies in the US, who succeeded in rolling back pro-intellectual property legislation in the US Congress. The mass website shutdowns, blackouts and other signs of protest against two bills — Protect Intellectual Property Act (PIPA) and Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) — forced pro-patent American politicians to backpedal and accept defeat.

The outcome is a victory for internet users and IT corporations over the old big capitalist titans of the entertainment sector. PIPA and SOPA had been introduced in the US Congress through persistent lobbying by the US Chamber of Commerce, the Motion Picture Association of America, the Recording Industry Association of America and other production houses of music, shows, and films.

Metaphorically, the campaign for and against these bills was a war between Silicon Valley and Hollywood. The fact that the former won reveals that there has been an internal shift within the capitalist order, with the Facebooks, Googles and Craigslists leading a new brigade that has stormed older institutions of information dominance. The former’s rants against ‘corporate paymasters’ allegedly trying to seize the internet triggered outrage among web users.

What the entertainment giants wanted was to instill more fear among netizens and dotcom firms against intentional or unintentional violation of patents and copyrights. But this strategy of intimidation is antithetical to the idea of open source commons, which is fast becoming the philosophy of the internet.

The participation of average Janes and Joes from America in the online rallies against PIPA and SOPA showed that rational individuals do not faithfully worship the concepts of private property and exclusion. The long tradition in American society of securing individual freedoms of the ‘small man’ against oppressively large businesses and a Leviathan State also contributed to the mobilisation of millions of netizens.

The IT companies, blog and website hosts had their own axes to grind, anxious about being sued by music and film producers for even the slightest appearance of pirated content on their platforms. What transpired was a political alliance between disorganised but vocal netizens and IT companies that anticipate losing web traffic, advertising and revenues.

The latter are not, in principle, against protecting intellectual property. The same IT firms, which went on the rampage in the last two weeks, have a long history of litigating against each other for violation of patents. The copyright and trademark dustups involving Microsoft and Google show that they are no less capitalist in their values when it comes to competition and bottom lines.

The anti-PIPA and SOFA movement was a coalescing of libertarians, anarchists, socialists and the Mark Zuckerberg-type capitalist entrepreneurs. What compelled the American right wing politicians wedded to patents to accept defeat was the rainbow nature of the opposition to their bills.

Having demonstrated its power as a collective in American politics, the technology sector will now realise that they have unbelievable capacity to be change agents. The usage of ‘web 2.0’ tools in election campaigns and democracy movements around the world was already prevalent but what we recently witnessed may have birthed a new class in itself that is conscious of its common interests and identity as ‘internet dwellers’. We in India may not yet understand that more and more of us are entering this new grouping as internet penetration rates rise in our country but pirates like you and me are reshaping capitalism.

Sreeram Chaulia is vice-dean of the Jindal School of International Affairs

The views expressed by the author are personal

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