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Archive for the ‘piratism’ Category

Some time ago I re-published in this blog The Guerilla Open Access Manifesto written by a young online activist called Aaron Swartz. This last Friday came the news that Swartz had committed suicide at the age of 26. At the time of his death, Swartz was facing charges for breaking into the MIT network to download paywalled academic articles that could have placed him in prison for a very long time.

I’m not going to speculate on the reasons why Swartz decided to end his life, or comment on the disproportionality of his charges. Instead, I’m going to highlight a remarkable campaign that has been spreading in the social media: hundreds, if not thousands of academics have been tweeting free download links to their own papers that have been published in subscription journals, in tribute to Swartz. One can only hope that this will be the beginning of an awakening that will see an end to the information monopoly that has the academic world in a stranglehold. After all, it’s the academics whose work has been essentially stolen by these corporate vultures that have never contributed anything to society.

The US government has, predictably, positioned itself firmly on the side of capital and against freedom of information and human progress. However, while they may be able to destroy the life of one man, but they won’t be able to terrorise the entire international academic community. The Open Access Manifesto is now more relevant than ever.

Edit: You can now honour Swartz’s memory with a couple of clicks by liberating an article from the JSTOR library using this bookmarklet.

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Speaking of public education, undoubtedly one of the most significant steps in democratising educational resources in history has been the establishment of the public library system. Unlike schools, libraries promote self-directed learning and are thus less susceptible to authoritarian control. Like mentioned in the above video, file-sharing networks can be seen as a continuation of the idea behind public libraries. They take the idea one step further, though: on the file-sharing networks the available content is not limited by the budget constraints and possible ideological inclinations of bureaucrats.

This video is a recording of a speaker’s corner session at the 2012 World Library and Information Congress in Helsinki on August 15, 2012. Guest speakers include Hanna Nikkanen, a Finnish journalist who’s written extensively on issues around freedom of information, and Anna Troberg, president of the Swedish Pirate Party.

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Here’s another talk from the re:publica 2012 conference in Berlin. In this one, Rick Falkvinge elaborates on how the Pirate Parties organise themselves in a swarmlike fashion.

 

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TorrentFreak writes about a new report on the emerging filesharing scene in North Korea. It turns out pirated copies of South Korean tv shows and music have become an important source of information about the rest of the world for North Koreans. North Korea is of course an extreme example, but the practice of filesharing can have equally emancipatory consequences here in the West as well. We also have various mechanisms that are used to control the flows of information, such as copyright, government classification schemes and paywalls. The ultimate purpose of these mechanisms is, I claim, the same as in countries like North Korea: maintaining existing social relations.

“In the high-stakes debate over control of the Internet, it is common to hear how the free flow of information is crucial to development of humanity. For North Korea, a country that has almost zero Internet access and is repressed beyond anything experienced in the West, the free flow of information is a distant concept. But according to a new report, the sharing of pirate TV shows and music among the citizens of the country is challenging the DPRK regimes’ depiction of the outside world.

When it comes to censorship, few countries in the world are as restrictive or repressive as North Korea.

Citizens of the DPRK are routinely deprived access to any and all information, unless of course it has been created, or authorized, by the regime.

The end result is a largely brainwashed society which is fed an alternative version of reality in order for it to be manipulated and controlled. But according to a new survey, developments in technology are giving citizens of the DPRK new access to information and insights into life beyond their borders.

The report, titled A Quiet Opening surveyed North Korean refugees and those who managed to travel outside the country. What it shows is that increasing numbers are gaining access to pirated media from outside the hermit nation, with potentially life-changing consequences.

While devices such as standard radios and televisions are manufactured so that citizens (at least those who can afford them) can only listen to state-run radio stations, imported devices are able to pick up signals from South Korea, China and beyond, although receiving these broadcasts is a crime.

With Internet unavailable to all but a tiny percentage of the elite, citizens of North Korea are obtaining their information through other means, notably file-sharing devices such as DVDs, MP3 and MP4 players, and USB drives.

Through these means they are being increasingly exposed to pirated TV shows and pop music leaking from neighboring South Korea. What they gain from these files is an alternative take on the world which challenges the propaganda of their leaders.

“I was told when I was young that South Koreans are very poor, but the South Korean dramas proved that just isn’t the case,” explains a 31-year-old who managed to escape North Korea in 2010.

Although there is no Internet, computers are legal in the country and are essential for shifting data to and from USB sticks and other media playback devices. What the report shows is that since computers are still rare, people buy blank devices and use their social networks to acquire pirate South Korean media from people with PC access.

“The MP4 [player] was empty but I received movies and music from friends who had computers and then I watched and listened to them. The battery was charged with electricity and it was portable so young people liked it,” says a 23-year-old former Pyongyang resident.

And it appears that the unlawful sharing of files is widespread, particularly among the youth.

“About 70-80 percent of people that have MP3/4 players are young people,” a 44-year-old male who left DPRK in 2010 reports. “When you do a crackdown of MP3/4 players among high school and university students, you see that 100 percent of them have South Korean music.”

In North Korea possession of unauthorized TV shows or music is a very dangerous affair. Depending on how the offense is viewed, punishments can range from 3 months unpaid labor to 5 years in a prison camp if the media originates from South Korea.

But despite the massive risks, young people in the DPRK are apparently prepared to defy the regime by consuming unauthorized media anyway, something they have in common with the US youth who share files in the face of $150,000 statutory damages.

As we read yesterday, the introduction of tougher and tougher laws to combat the spread of pirate material in Sweden also failed to reach the desired effect when they conflicted with social norms.

Of course, the situation in North Korea goes way beyond anything experienced in the US or Europe, but the battles being fought center around the same thing – the free flow of information. Access to information will eventually set the North Koreans free and if that can be achieved through file-sharing, it will be the activity’s biggest achievement to date, bar none.

The report can be downloaded here (pdf)

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TorrentFreak has published an article on the rising popularity of anonymised and secure filesharing tools:

“The file-sharing landscape is slowly adjusting in response to the continued push for more anti-piracy tools, the final Pirate Bay verdict, and the raids and arrests in the Megaupload case. Faced with uncertainty and drastic changes at file-sharing sites, many users are searching for secure, private and uncensored file-sharing clients. Despite the image its name suggests, RetroShare is one such future-proof client.

The avalanche of negative file-sharing news over the past weeks hasn’t gone unnoticed to users and site operators.

From SOPA to Megaupload, there is a growing uncertainly about the future of sharing.

While many BitTorrent sites and cyberlockers continue to operate as usual, there is a growing group of users who are expanding their horizons to see what other means of sharing are available if the worst case scenario becomes reality.

Anonymous, decentralized and uncensored are the key and most sought-after features. For some this means signing up with a VPN to make their BitTorrent sharing more private, but new clients are also generating interest.

Earlier this month we wrote about Tribler, a decentralized (not anonymous) BitTorrent client that makes torrent sites obsolete. We’ve covered Tribler for more than half a decade, but it was only after our most recent post that it really took off with more than a hundred thousand downloads in a few days.

But there are more file-sharing tools that are specifically built to withstand outside attacks. Some even add anonymity into the mix. RetroShare is such a private and uncensored file-sharing client, and the developers have also noticed a significant boom in users recently.

The RetroShare network allows people to create a private and encrypted file-sharing network. Users add friends by exchanging PGP certificates with people they trust. All the communication is encrypted using OpenSSL and files that are downloaded from strangers always go through a trusted friend.

In other words, it’s a true Darknet and virtually impossible to monitor by outsiders.

RetroShare founder DrBob told us that while the software has been around since 2006, all of a sudden there’s been a surge in downloads. “The interest in RetroShare has massively shot up over the last two months,” he said.

“In January our downloads tripled when interest in SOPA was at its peak. It more than doubled again in February, when cyberlockers disabled sharing or shut down entirely. At the moment we are getting 10 times more downloads than in December 2011.”

RetroShare’s founder believes that there is an increased need for security, privacy and freedom among file-sharers, features that are at the core of his application.

“RetroShare is about creating a private space on the Internet. A social collaboration network where you can share anything you want. A space that is free from the prying eyes of governments, corporations and advertisers. This is vitally important as our freedom on the Internet is under increasing threat,” DrBob told TorrentFreak.

“RetroShare is free from censorship: like Facebook banning ‘obscene’ breast-feeding photographs. A network that allows you to use any pseudonym, without insisting on knowing your real name. A network where you will not face the threat of jail, or being banned from entry into a country for an innocent tweet.”

It’s impossible to accurately predict what file-sharing will look like 5 years from now. But, a safe assumption is that anonymity will play a more central role than it ever has.

Recent crackdowns have made operators of central file-sharing sites and services more cautious of copyright infringement. Some even went as far as shutting down voluntarily, like BTjunkie.

In the long run this might drive more casual downloaders to legitimate alternatives, if these are available. Those who keep on sharing could move to smaller communities, darknets, and anonymous connections.”

While it’s naturally a good thing that awareness of the security issues with filesharing is growing, some thought should also be given to the openness question as well. If a large portion of sharing activity moves to darknets, we risk losing the network effect that has made the filesharing community the significant power it now is. What we need are technologies that will provide enough anonymity whilst also making the maximum amount of content available to the maximum amount of people, and we need these technologies to become the standard fairly quickly before the copyright industry manages to scare away the casual users from the networks. Filesharing should be preserved as a core online activity for the majority of Internet users, not just the selected few who understand the technical issues. To allow filesharing to drift back into the marginals would be a step backwards for our culture at large.

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Jason Hickel makes an important point when he writes in his article over at Common Dreams that the Occupy movement has failed so far to capture the imagination of the Global South. Despite the international nature of the movement, the various occupations have been mostly concentrating their biggest efforts on local issues and the effects of the deterioration of the Western middle class. There’s of course nothing wrong with that per se, but eventually the movement will have to tackle the difficult issues of global inequality and poverty, including the environmental changes that are amplifying those issues, in order to be able to promote social justice on a global scale.

I would have to argue here that the only way to achieve lasting changes in global wealth and power distribution in the long run is for us in the West to wind down our consumer culture, and with it, the global trade structures that uphold it. We must realise that most of us living in the West are a part of the global 1% that is living comfortably on the expense of the other 99%. Hickel agrees when he writes that “instead of ‘developing’ the global South, we need to un-develop the West; we need to subvert and dismantle the flows of tribute that underpin Western affluence.” But this is, naturally, going to be a very long and gradual process, like any change on a cultural level is bound to be. There are, however, some things that we can do to decrease global inequality in the relatively short-term as well. Here, I list some of these things.

1. The very first thing we should address, I think, is the so-called intellectual property question. Intellectual property, that is patents, copyright and trademarks, has become one of the most important ways for global capital to integrate the Global South into its neo-colonialist system. Gene patents, in particular, are being used to steal the agricultural heritage of Global South peoples, as well as to place their farmers under debt slavery by forcibly selling them patented GMO seeds.¹ Medical patents are also used to deny the poor people of the Global South affordable generic drugs that could save millions of lives.

Discussion about intellectual property here in the West has been mostly revolving around the rights to the products of Western popular culture, which on a global scale is, let’s face it, a negligible issue. We who are critical of intellectual property rights should try to steer the discussion more towards actual matters of life and death. We should work to undermine the whole concept of intellectual property by showing how it’s being used to uphold massive global inequality and deprive people in the Global South of their right to self-determination and a decent livelihood. We should use these arguments to oppose any new international intellectual property treaties, such as ACTA, and also to demand a renegotiation of existing treaties, such as TRIPS.

Another way to undermine intellectual property monopolies is by civil disobedience. We should work meticulously to preserve and share information, in any form and by any means, disregarding any intellectual property rights that may be attached to it. Thus we’ll be able to create a more even distribution of information globally and start to dismantle the power structures inherent in the intellectual property regime. Here’s where we can put our beloved p2p-networks to genuinely beneficial use, not forgetting of course that many people in the Global South don’t have access to the Internet (although a growing number do).

2. The second important front of opposition is to the international “free trade” treaties. The only freedom these treaties provide is the freedom for Western corporations to extract cheap labour and natural resources from the Global South with impunity. We must demand a renegotiation of these treaties to allow the Global South nations to arrange their economies on their own terms. We can also organise boycotts against any corporations that engage in exploitative practices in the Global South.

On the side of the financial markets, we must engage in a full on war against the terrorist regime of the IMF. In this battle, we in Europe have a key position as we’re all at least indirectly partial to the schemes the IMF has concocted for the debtor nations within the EU. We should all in our own countries reject any “bailout” plans that involve the IMF, and also support the people of Greece and other debtor nations in their effort to throw out the IMF vultures once and for all. Such an action by the people is perfectly feasible, as Argentina’s experiences in the early 2000s showed. This would set an example for all the Global South nations that they don’t need to submit to the demands of fraudulent financial institutions such as the IMF and would also undermine the position of the IMF as a global player.

Furthermore, we must demand the cancellation of most, if not all of the debts the Global South nations owe to Western nations, banks and international institutions. These debts are a result of hundreds of years of extreme exploitation on the part of the West and have no moral basis whatsoever.²

3. We must also act against international weapons trade. The year that just ended provided many examples of how weapons imported from Western countries were used by totalitarian regimes in the Global South against their own people. Ideally, we should aim for a global ban on all export of weapons to any country, including “non-lethal” weapons and surveillance technology. The people of each exporting country can begin by demanding an export ban nationally. This would also cut down on the volume of global arms trade, thus making the world a safer place in the long run.

4. Finally, we should begin to forge more personal relationships with ordinary people in the Global South, not as a part of any “mission” or “aid program,” but as human beings of an equal standing. We must try to get rid of the idea of the Global South as “undeveloped” or “backwards.” As Hickel also points out, the notion that every nation should pursue Western living standards and consumer culture is a disastrous one, to say the least. On the contrary, we in the West should be following the example of the subsistence economies that still exist in the Global South on how to live well outside the capitalist system.

It’s important to keep in mind, though, that we cannot fight the fights of the people in the Global South for them. Local problems must be solved locally. We can of course show solidarity and provide help in areas where we have something genuinely valuable to offer, such as in information technology issues. In the end, however, I think the old adage of “think globally, act locally” is still relevant here.

¹ Vandana Shiva has discussed these issues in length. See eg. the book Protect or Plunder – Understanding Intellectual Property Rights (2001).

² See the pages of The Committee for the Cancellation of the Third World Debt (CADTM) for more information.

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One argument frequently used by the copyright lobby against piracy is the economic one: that piracy leads to losses for the copyright industry which in turn leads to less investments and the loss of jobs. The point of the argument is to show how piracy is hurting national economies by increasing the unemployment rate. If we accept this argument, stronger enforcement of intellectual property rights starts to look like a reasonable economic policy for any nation-state. Put simply, stronger IP rights becomes equal to the common good. This is, of course, the message the copyright industry would like to get through to the decision makers everywhere and it’s often succeeding in this.

There are two obvious flaws to this argument. The first flaw is that it hasn’t been shown decidedly that piracy actually has a negative effect on the sales of copyrighted goods. The second flaw is that this argument looks at the copyright industry as an island wholly separate from the rest of the economy. It’s as if the money that is no longer spent on copyrighted goods just disappears into thin air. This is, of course, bullshit. The money saved on copyrighted goods (the consumer surplus) is simply spent in other sectors of the economy. Thus, the net effect of piracy on the economy as a whole should be more or less zero.

That’s not yet the whole story, though. Joe Karaganis of the Social Science Research Council argues that, in the case of Europe, the net effect of piracy on the economy may well be positive. The reason for this is that Europe is a net importer of copyrighted goods, that is to say the Europeans consume more goods produced in other parts of the world than the rest of the world consumes European productions. A majority of copyrighted goods imported to Europe come from the US which is the largest net exporter of those goods in the world. In practice, what this means is that stronger enforcement of IP rights in Europe leads to more money flowing from the European economies to the US; money that could have otherwise been spent within the European economies, thus helping Europeans to keep their jobs.

From this perspective, the only reasonable economic policy for Europe should be the one with less IP rights. Instead, the European political elite supports the strong IP policies enforced upon them by the US, not realising that the Americans are simply using those policies to benefit their own economy. In a world where the number one objective of any nation-state is to increase its competitiveness, it’s surprising that such an obvious competitive edge is completely ignored by the European leaders. The Chinese are, of course, much wiser in this respect.

In face of the ineptness of the European elite, it is once again up to the pirate movement to rise to the occasion and oppose the hegemony of the American IP industry. Thus, piratism becomes a force against economic and cultural imperialism. Such a force is especially important in the developing countries where intellectual property is being used to repress and enslave people and destroy local cultures (one only needs to mention one name here: Monsanto). Intellectual property rights are one of the major obstacles to the reduction of poverty in the world today, and any movement working for global justice should be taking a critical look into agreements that implement stronger enforcement of those rights, such as TRIPS and ACTA. In this area, the pirates can be considered pioneers.

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