International

#firstworldproblems

Tim Sondalini examines the worldly impact of anti-piracy laws.

 

Last month I was pretty vigorous in my opposition to the SOPA and PIPA legislation. These two amendments to American copyright law would have profoundly damaged the operation of the Internet and seriously constrained the potential of this incredible medium. In the midst of one of my anti-SOPA rages a friend called me out on my addiction to a very #firstworldproblem. His argument went something like this:

  1. The Internet is a privilege of living in the developed world.
  2. What you’re yelling about is something only a very lucky few will ever care about.
  3. It’d be infinitely better if you focussed your attention on something that will actually do some good.
  4. Now shut up and drink your beer.

My friend had a point. There is an extensive debate around the existence of a ‘Digital Divide’ between rich, connected, developed countries and poor, unconnected and invisible developing countries. From this frame of mind the mass hysteria around the Wikipedia blackout appears to be a little conceited. But my friend’s argument misses out on a crucial point. That point is this: the importance of the current debate around SOPA and the Internet’s philosophical foundations transcends the current time frame. It must be recognised that the decisions made now, while the Internet is still in its turbulent teenage years, will have a dramatic effect on the lifestyle of future generations, even those whose parents are currently on the deprived side of the Divide.

The statistics kept by the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) statistics reveal that developing countries lag behind the West in the total proportion of their population using the Internet. This isn’t surprising, but what is unexpected is that the growth of the Internet usership in developing countries has been superluminally fast. Between 2001 and 2011 the proportion of citizens with Internet access in developing countries increased from 2.3 users per 100 people to 26.3 users per 100 people. Currently, the level of Internet penetration in developing countries is broadly comparable to the level of Internet adoption in developed countries in 2001. A Digital Divide certainly exists, but for a developing economy to be roughly at the same level of technological adoption as a developed economy was ten years ago is a success in my books.

So people all over the world are using the Internet in ever larger numbers, how does SOPA affect the future of these users and of the currently unconnected? SOPA and PIPA were designed to bolster the rights of copyright holders. If SOPA and its twin had been passed the broad effect would have been to shift the onus of protecting copyright from the copyright holder to the website hosting potentially copyrighted material. YouTube would be sued out of existence, so would Flickr and basically any other website which lets users post content. SOPA and legislative provisions like it would stall e-commerce and any online based entrepreneurship. In the developing world, where a colossal amount of the economy is reliant on entrepreneurs that can quickly disperse and share information, any potential speed bump in the spread of this information will have dramatic negative effects. So along with Mill’s argument about free speech being good for cultural development, in today’s connected world free speech is also required for economic development.

But again; what’s so great about being connected to the Internet if you spend most of your time scrabbling for food? The point of this article is that what we do to the Internet now will forever scar the network. Yes, it is tough in developing nations right now, and it will be tough for a lot longer but eventually standards of living will increase and the developing world will deliver billions of entrepreneurs ready to make their mark on the world. If SOPA had been passed earlier this year, the Internet which these developing entrepreneurs have only just begun to explore would have been an entity which restricted their ability to entertain new ideas and bolster their nations. While SOPA may have been on face value a #firstworldproblem its restrictions would have dramatic ramifications for everyone, even those who are yet to be connected.

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