The Internet is like a million-page a second photocopier (or is that a series of tubes)

Not long ago, I read Daniel Ellsberg’s[1] autobiography, Secrets, and also watched the film, The Most Dangerous Man in America. A striking feature of the book was that Ellsberg’s biggest problem in leaking the Pentagon Papers was the logistical difficulty of making 20 or so copies of a 7000 page cache of documents. It took him and a couple of helpers several months, IIRC. 

Now of course, such a task is easy, as demonstrated by Ellsberg’s successor (allegedly Bradley Manning) who supplied vast quantities of classified documents to Wikileaks. On the other hand, if Ellsberg had been 20 or so years earlier, he wouldn’t even have been able to make a single copy. [2]

The blackout yesterday as a protest against SOPA and PIPA reflects a simple fact about the Internet – it is, in essence a way of making and distributing vast numbers of copies of documents of all kinds.

That’s true not only in the obvious sense that users can obtain copies of articles, music, video and so on from websites all around the planet, but in the way that they are transmitted through large numbers of intermediaries, cached by service providers, backed up on local computer systems ans so on. 

The implications, for someone who wants to control copying, are stark. Since the technology makes it incredibly easy to copy, it’s essentially impossible to prevent it. The only way to stop copying is through the imposition of draconian penalties after the fact. Moreover, since the technology of the Internet depends on copying at every stage, almost any scheme designed to criminalise copying must cripple the operations of the Internet in one way or another.

Until now, we’ve seen an arms race, in which ever stronger legal rights have been accorded to the owners of “Intellectual Property”, while technological advances have made those rights less and less effective. The dispute over SOPA and PIPA seems to mark a change in that dynamic. The IP lobby proceeded in the traditional way, drawing up a law that met their objectives, in the expectation that, at most, they might have to negotiate away a few points to deal with the concerns of Internet users.

But faced with Wikipedia, Google and others saying the bills would destroy the Internet, the IP lobby was helpless. By the time they took out the most obnoxious provisions, such as the DNS filter,  the bills were already political poison. 

No doubt they will try again. But the dynamic has now changed. They’ll have to come up with measures that can’t be plausibly claimed to damage the Internet, cripple computers and so on. And given their past performances, they aren’t going to have a lot of credences if their claims are disputed by the likes of Wikipedia.

So, the likelihood is that they won’t be very effective. They may be able to put some obstacles in the way of large-scale copying of pirated commercial material like music and videos, but they’ll have a lot of trouble enforcing the claims of strong IP, that everything is subject to copyright and that the owner has near-absolute control over how it is used. [3]

That’s all to the good, I think. At least among mainstream/orthodox economist[4] there is near-universal consensus that existing intellectual property protections are too strong and that there are substantial potential gains from weakening both the duration and the scope of such protections. A Marxist analysis reaches the same conclusion, with reasoning fairly similar to what I’ve written above.

Anyway, SOPA and PIPA appear to be dead for now, and hopefully forever




fn1. Readers who have even a passing familiarity with decision theory will recognise Ellsberg as the inventor of the Ellsberg problem, which demolished the idea that decisionmakers have well-defined subjective probabilities over events. As I’ll explain in the post, however, Ellsberg also played an important historical role in the United States.

fn2. The development of photocopiers is said to have been one of the factors contributing to the failure of the Soviet Union – adopting the technology made samizdat publication easy, while trying to restrict it killed productivity growth

fn3. A helpful hint. Don’t mention rootkits

fn4. The orthodox view is that copyright is a compromise between the ex ante need to encourage content creation and the ex post benefits of free access to information.   Libertarians/Austrians are split between the extremes – either creators have absolute rights, or they have none. I looked quickly for an institutionalist view, but couldn’t find one.

8 thoughts on “The Internet is like a million-page a second photocopier (or is that a series of tubes)

  1. Its all about changing the models of the content creators. A lot of people are happy to pay a dollar or two for a song. But the record companies wanted them to pay $30 for a CD.

    I imagine movies might go the same way. A $2 download from iFilms anyone?

    It would be incredibly sad for the internet, which only matured when I was already an adult, to die so that Rupert Murdoch and the Chinese government were happy.

  2. There appear to be a vast number of people in the world who hate their jobs, but who are quite happy to work for free and create wonderful stuff such as Unix, Wikipedia, some youtube videos, and so on. This blog is an excellent example of something freely given that makes our lives better. I think any regulation that makes it less likely that people will contribute in this way is something that has the potential to severely hurt the world’s economic development. If the US went down that path I think it would also hurt the US’s soft power. While it’s hard to know what would happen if the bills were passed in more or less their original form, the moderately extreme scenario where most North Americans are unable to access Wikipedia or its successor is a world where the US has less influence.

  3. An interesting problem that technology has created, and never been able to fix: the typo.

    […] backed up on local computer systems ans so on

    end of p4

  4. @Ronald Brak
    Until a few months ago, in my street in Berlin, there was an “umsonst laden” which collected and gave away things for free, some of it pretty good stuff. One could pay a small donation if moved to do so. The local authorities (and the landlords) decided it wasn’t good for the other shops if people could go shopping for free, so they evicted them, with the usual extreme-left demo, heavily outnumbered by riot cops, and the street is now 100% capitalist and far less interesting. Creativity survives on the contributions of generous people, and the internet made this immensely powerful. however I fear, like my umsonst laden, the internet will eventually be curtailed.

  5. “On the other hand, if Ellsberg had been 20 or so years earlier, he wouldn’t even have been able to make a single copy”

    This is a minor point that is not really relevant to the discussion, but I beg to differ on this one.

    A classic scene in many spy stories and films of the 1940’s – 1950’s is the spy surreptously photographing secret documents with a small camera (Minox’ were a favourite) and then going through all kinds of maneuvres to get the resulting film to his spymaster.
    While developing the film and making paper copies from them may have been more tedious and expensive than photocopying, the actual photographying was not more tedious than photocopying or – today – scanning them.

    Karl Heinz

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