Thursday, February 18, 2010

The following essay was written for The Futurist Magazine’s Visionaries series:

We live in the future.
I am writing on a three-pound sliver of a laptop that can execute billions of operations every second, connected to the Internet over a mobile broadband connection. I am juggling competing deadlines for this article and writing Web code for a project running on a cloud infrastructure I will never see. I send e-mail, listen to music, publish updates to Twitter and Facebook, and test machine-learning algorithms, all while enjoying a double espresso.
When I run into a bug or can’t remember the syntax for a command, I Google the question, knowing the Web’s answers to be faster and more accurate than the documentation stored on my hard drive and Kindle. My phone is a pocket computer with nearly the power of the first desktop machines used in Second Life’s development. All of us can find, manage, remix, and share information with an ease we are already taking for granted.
We live in the future. Big Content does not. Big Content — shorthand for the publishing, music, movie, television, and news industries and their powerful lobbying organizations — is staggering into the second decade of the twenty-first century. Despite the largest, wealthiest, and most connected global audience in human history, Big Content faces precipitous declines in sales and advertising revenue.
Because Big Content does not embrace the world we live in, two wildly different outcomes exist for media in 2020: Big Brother or Little Brother. Which future we get is a function of who participates in and drives the ongoing debates around media, innovation, copyright, piracy, and Internet access.
Content owners have railed against technological change since before Big Content even existed, from John Philip Sousa’s denouncing of the player piano to former Motion Picture Association of America chief Jack Valenti’s famous comparison of the VCR to the Boston Strangler. But for the most part, national governments have acted to maximize growth and prosperity through a balanced approach to intellectual property law. History validated that approach, with content creators and owners repeatedly adapting to and mastering new technologies and business opportunities.
The massive advantages that Big Content has when leveraging new technology — existing audience, established talent, and institutional expertise — are not enough for the incumbents. Instead, Big Content wants regulation to control technology, to force the law to define what artists and fans want in the future. As laughably bad as our ability to regulate the future is, it is fortunate that previous attempts, focused on limiting what artists and fans could do with their content through digital rights management (DRM), met with limited success at best.
Recently, Big Content has changed tactics, determined to create a Big Brother future for us all. At the heart of this new approach is the idea of “graduated response,” embodied in France’s recently ratified “three strikes” law. “Three strikes” is fairly simple: Be accused of violating copyright law three times, and you lose access to the Internet for three months to one year. A mysterious official body, the High Authority for the Distribution of Works and the Protection of Rights on the Internet, or HADOPI, would enforce the measure in accordance with a broad mandate to “prevent the hemorrhaging of cultural works on the Internet.”
This bears repeating: If HADOPI accuses you of violating copyright law three times, you could lose your access to the Internet.
“Three strikes” is gaining support worldwide. Today, most of the developed world is engaged in negotiations around the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA). The parties to the agreement, including the United States, the European Union, and South Korea, have kept negotiations secret, but leaks indicate “three strikes” is under consideration.
This is akin to having your phone service terminated for making a mix tape. Or your electricity turned off for wearing a homemade superhero Halloween costume.
This is the Big Brother future. Abuses of the United States’ Digital Millennium Copyright Act have already shown that content owners will allege copyright abuse to hamper business competitors, suppress free speech, and block innovation. How much more powerful a hammer is “three strikes,” since it can effectively cut off the accused from their community, co-workers, and family by blocking Internet access? For many people, such a move would destroy their livelihood.
Thus, a bleak media future for 2020 is on the horizon, one where any content owner is able to invoke Big Brother to cut off your access to the Internet. Use the Internet as your phone service, for playing games, watching television, paying your bills, attending school, or working from home? Too bad! Three alleged copyright violations and you are back in 1990. Three mistakes by notoriously error-prone filtering software, and you are a second-class citizen, blocked from interacting with the rest of civil society.
What will this lead to? In 2020, the Internet and World Wide Web will be the most important technology any of us have access to. Fearing the loss of that connection, you will take the only option available and avoid media on the Internet entirely. No posting pictures, no streaming content, no cloud storage of your data, no user-generated content, no discussion groups about media. Any of these uses of media could lead to inadvertent copyright infringement or false positives, resulting in the loss of your connection to the Internet and the Web. So, ironically, by driving a Big Brother agenda, Big Content is sowing the seeds for its own destruction by eliminating the largest and most easily addressable audience ever.
Alternatives to Big Brother and Big Content
Fortunately, Big Brother is not the only option. We — innovators, politicians, and citizens — can demand a better option: a Little Brother future.
Among the changes brought on by the Internet age, one of the greatest is the tremendous increase in capability available to individuals and small teams. First, the dramatic decrease in computation, storage, and transmission costs makes it far less risky to experiment with new technology. Next, the explosion of wired and wireless connections to the Web ensures an addressable audience. Finally, intense competition between tools and technologies makes Web development faster and more approachable. It has never been cheaper or easier to create content or to find and deliver that content to the right audience.
In broader terms, the costs of communication and learning have never been lower, and will only drop further if we refuse to allow Big Content to drive the debate. Cheaper learning should matter to all of us, because innovation is constrained by the cost of learning. Innovation — turning knowledge into products — drives per capita economic growth through productivity gains, so any nation that fundamentally reduces the costs of learning has a global competitive advantage. History is replete with examples, most recently the United States’ productivity gains in the 1990s due to the expansion of the Internet and information technology.
In 2010, as the world pulls out of a dramatic economic downturn, we are on the cusp of a new period of innovation and growth, driven by wireless broadband, mobile devices, and ubiquitous connectivity. Rather than succumbing to Big Brother policy demands, citizens should rally for a Little Brother future, where everyone has the maximum chance to create the next Google, Facebook, or Twitter. A Little Brother future relies on net neutrality (unrestricted movement of data) and a reasonable balance between the rights of content owners and music, movie, and content fans.
This is the future where artists and audiences have the best chance to find each other and create the next great ideas for Big Content. New media companies and business strategies can only emerge if the regulatory framework enables experimentation. Recent examples abound. EMI Music led first with non-digitally rights-managed music and a focus on the music experience; the company announced a significant upturn in revenues. YouTube was able to launch and grow while the courts worked on the legal questions related to hosting user-uploaded videos. Trent Reznor, founder of the rock band Nine Inch Nails, works with fans to create new media projects. Second Life’s users created successful virtual venues for live music. A Little Brother future ensures that innovators continue to have the space to try.
As the last decade has taught us, they will try and try! And TRY! This doesn’t guarantee Big Content’s ongoing success, but when compared with a Big Brother future where their demise is guaranteed, the choice is obvious. Big Content should be joining the rest of us as we lead the charge for a Little Brother future.

Nota Bene The choice of “Little Brother” was inspired by Cory Doctorow’s novel of the same name. A brilliant book exploring life in today’s Big Brother world.

copyright © 2009-2014 Cory Ondrejka