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Skirmishes in the 'great sectarian war of the Internet'

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By Skomorokh
New York Times op-ed columnist Bill Keller, who entered the fray this week with a call for the entrenched supporters and adversaries of controversial anti-piracy legislation to find common ground

A trio of editorials appeared in American national newspapers this week, reigniting the war of words over the protests against SOPA and PIPA earlier this year which saw an unprecedented blackout of Wikipedia and other websites inspire the defeat of the proposed anti-piracy legislation.

Keller: "Steal This Column"

The latest round of the debate was initiated by The New York Times' writer Bill Keller in an op-ed for the paper's February 6 edition, "Steal This Column", on February 6. The polarizing struggle over the bills had been widely characterised as a resounding albeit temporary defeat of efforts by established content industries to protect their business models (through muscular copyright enforcement) by an upsurge of opposition by internet users marshalled by a ragtag group of technology firms and their allies, Wikipedia prominent among them. Keller, whose recently concluded tenure as executive editor at the Times had been dominated by the threat to its future posed by the new media environment heralded by the internet, took sideswipes at the lofty rhetoric of web titans Google and Facebook, but sang the praises of Wikipedia:

Although he appeared to take a conciliatory tack in "the great sectarian war over the governing of the Internet" by critiquing the inadequacies of the defeated legislative efforts, Keller wrote vociferously of the "rampant online theft of songs, films, books and other content", arguing that "parasite Web sites should be treated with the same contempt as people who pick pockets or boost cars". He adopted the framing of the bills' supporters in referring to topic of the debate as "the attempt to curtail online piracy", and disclosed his surprise and dismay at seeing "Wikipedia’s founder and philosopher, Jimmy Wales" giving credence to the opposition in emerging as "a combatant for the tech industry".

Keller cast doubt on the OPEN Act praised as an alternative by Wales, describing it as fraught with loopholes and difficult to enforce, while calling on the music and film industries to engage with it and come to terms with the internet coalition. Wales' plea for "serious reform" rather than sectarian struggle was deemed by Keller to be at odds with the polarized state of American politics. He posited that the sense in which the volunteer encyclopaedia was "free" was distinct from the notion of "free" expression as laid out in the U.S. Constitution – one markedly infused with an emphasis on intellectual property and copyright protection.

Keller ended his piece by arguing that content industries and internet firms are bound in a co-dependent relationship, with the former dependent on the latter's capacity for channeling creative expression, and the internet – and Wikipedia specifically – dependent on the copyright-protected content for its own part. Commenters on the article were notably resistant to this conception, with many voicing skepticism about the notion that copyright still served its purported function of fostering creativity, and speculating as to whether the legacy content owners had more incentive to obstruct rather than embrace the new internet-enabled forms of innovative expression and collaboration. Keller's woes continued later in the week, when the newspaper was alleged by The Boston Phoenix to have flagrantly disregarded its copyright by hosting and linking to content belonging to its competitor on New York Times servers.

Sherman: "What Wikipedia Won't Tell You"

A screenshot of the landing page which confronted readers trying to access Wikipedia during the blackout protest of January 18

The following day saw the paper run another op-ed on the issue, this time from Recording Industry Association of America head Cary Sherman. The article, "What Wikipedia Won’t Tell You", again strongly emphasised the piracy combating purpose of the defeated legislative efforts, but unlike Keller's piece, it explicitly denounced the opponents of the bills as having used the "dirty trick" of inflammatory misinformation to goad a credulous public into mass outrage. Furthermore, Sherman contested, in doing so internet-based organisations had transgressed by violating their users' expectation of neutrality:

It was proof positive for Sherman of the self-serving hypocrisy of a culture which in loudly arguing for net neutrality had insisted on that the controllers of service providing platforms refrain from the temptation to misuse them for their own ends. Unlike the unscrupulous websites, the lobbyist pointedly noted, broadcast media such as television and radio networks did not use their access to an audience to push their point of view. Although he granted that some opponents of the bills were sincerely concerned with fighting piracy but alarmed by potential overreach of the legislation, Sherman went on to characterise other constituents of the protest alternately as dupes, proponents of piracy, or malevolent hackers bent on suppressing points of view contrary to their own. Sherman called on the obstructionist internet entities to partake in "respectful fact-based conversations" with their erstwhile opponents to address the "real and damaging" problem of piracy, concluding with a barbed reiteration of Keller's summation the day before: "We all share the goal of a safe and legal Internet. We need reason, not rhetoric, in discussing how to achieve it."

Techdirt's Mike Masnick, who was sharply critical of Cary Sherman's New York Times op-ed

The reader response was predictably scathing, seeing Sherman accused of disingenuously dodging the real motivations for opposition to the bills – a fear of draconian, overreaching powers going far beyond the aim of sustaining creativity through copyright to imposing unreasonable and burdensome regulations that would have the effect of curtailing free expression, all orchestrated by powerful vested interests lobbying to have their way in an undemocratic behind-closed-doors process. Danny Goodwin of Search Engine Watch summarised the fallout as follows: "Readers, however, had no sympathy for Sherman or the RIAA. Overwhelmingly, readers supported the efforts of Google and Wikipedia to kill the bills." At Ars Technica, Nate Anderson accused Sherman, whom he recognised as having a "keen grasp of the issues", of engaging in "hand-waving demagoguery", and declared the "strangely angry" response to be so alienating and off-the-point that it would become a textbook case study of how not to respond to a controversy. The opponents of the bills, he argued, were unlikely to want to engage in reasoned discourse about the way forward with a self-pitying accusatory adversary.

In a column for Techdirt titled "RIAA Totally Out Of Touch: Lashes Out At Google, Wikipedia And Everyone Who Protested SOPA/PIPA", Mike Masnick was also damning of Sherman's editorial, contending that while the misinformation put forth by opponents of the bills was explainable by an errant focus on early drafts and the participation of a subset of the public prone to exaggeration and untruth, the misinformation propagated by the supporters was "the direct and planned out strategy of the MPAA, RIAA and US Chamber of Commerce to directly mislead Congress and the press by presenting information in a manner that was flat out false". Masnick concluded:

Wales and Walsh: "We Are The Media, And So Are You"

Wikimedia Foundation trustees Jimmy Wales and Kat Walsh, who co-authored an editorial for the Washington Post defending the position of Wikimedians – "the largest collection of creators in human history"

On February 9, Wikimedia Foundation trustees Jimmy Wales and Kat Walsh gave voice to the dominant perspective of Wikimedians in an op-ed for the Washington Post, "We are the media, and so are you". It was notable by contrast to the week's two preceding editorials in that the authors resisted the framing of the debate as a battle between the competing worlds of Hollywood and Silicon Valley, vested interests at war to protect their narrow goals by whatever means at their disposal. Rather, Wales and Walsh, proposed, the defeat of SOPA/PIPA represented an awakening of political consciousness on the part of millions of regular internet users who had hitherto been "all but invisible to Congress". Defying charges that the upswell of protest was a calculated instigation by deep-pocketed technology firms and their lobbyists – "about as organic as the masses of North Koreans crying in the streets upon hearing of Kim Jong Il’s death" (PCC Associates), Wales and Walsh distanced themselves and this emergent activist movement from the large technology companies, whom they characterised as just another instantiation of rising commercial powers enmeshing themselves in the murky world of legislation for their shareholders' benefit. Wikipedia, a donation-funded mass movement of ordinary people, was an entirely different entity, they conjectured:

The Wikimedia movement is uninterested in entering a phase of permanent advocacy, they argued, but what the debates had changed is that they forced the acknowledgement that the projects' existence was inherently political, and demanded defence on those grounds. The Wikimedia movement could no longer stand on the sidelines while organisations such as Public Knowledge and the Electronic Frontier Foundation fought to protect the environment that facilitated its existence, the trustees argued; the shifting cultural and political landscape meant that the institutions of Congress and copyright, designed for times now past in which small number of industrial titans controlled the dissemination of culture and information, required rethinking in this age of technologically-enabled mass expression. The piece concluded with a forceful reframing of the terms of debate:

In the spirit of this distributed media age, the privilege of editorials need not remain the sole domain of the elite thoughtleaders. The Signpost is soliciting compelling, thoughtful and provocative opinion essays of all perspectives: if you think you could have something worthy of attention and debate to write on this or another issue of critical relevance to the reading community, consider proposing it at our dedicated desk or by email to

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  • What the RIAA fails to realize is that it really dosen't matter what you say, or even what the law says, once you've lost the respect of the population you come into contact with. The RIAA has a track record of underhanded legal practices that's so disgusting, and has been so well covered by the mainstream media, that people from the older, pre-digital generations (a group which I'm not a member of), and the members of the digital generation that consider online piracy immoral and find the arguments made by "pirates" unconvincing (a group which I most certainly am a member of), still dislike and distrust the RIAA. Cary Sherman can yell and scream and shout (and write NYT op-eds) all he wants, but he's still the head of an organization so reviled by the people he's trying to reach that his screaming and shouting and writing op-eds only serves to energize those who oppose him. Sven Manguard Wha? 05:42, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
    • Hear, hear! ···日本穣? · 投稿 · Talk to Nihonjoe · Join WP Japan! 09:19, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
      • we need an education plan for congress. what is wikipedia, why we're not "corporate pawns". a little briefing tour on the hill by wikipedians, perhaps as a part of wikimania, would be a start. this is a zombie issue, they will keep coming back. they may be reviled, but in a vacuum, they had a draconian bill all set for passage. we need a contingency plan for moving servers, iceland comes to mind. Slowking4 †@1₭ 16:04, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
        • When I think about explaining Wikipedia, or really even the internet, to congresspeople, this comes to mind. What we need are a few more congresspeople who are right on the minimum age line, i.e. people who have grown up with all this technology. That and less corporate money flowing into Congress. Sven Manguard Wha? 16:21, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
          • good point, it is like explaining the internet to your parents. we need to show up in person, and bond with all the polysci majors in congressional offices. they understand, they need a reason to brief their member. "melting the phones" is not a solution. if they understood the widespread grassroots support of open knowledge, then the money would have less impact. more common sense talk will defeat the pro-sopa hysteria. Slowking4 †@1₭ 16:54, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • ... broadcast media such as television and radio networks did not use their access to an audience to push their point of view ... - well, I don't know about this particular situation, but, in general, if there is anyone who thinks that (for example) Fox News does not push a particular political point of view, I have a bridge that I'm willing to sell them. -- John Broughton (♫♫) 16:25, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
  • Like most of Sherman's piece, likely not really true: TV networks just didn't cover SOPA much until the 18 January protests (CNN did on air and online, and pretty fairly) and did run ads against SOPA: some opponents called the situation a "media blackout". —innotata 20:44, 16 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]

Nolelover, here's your answer, from my uncompleted WMF "manufacturing consent" FAQ (disclaimer - I oppose SOPA/PIPA, etc)

Q: But Wikipedia was in mortal peril! A: Even the Wikimedia General Counsel conceded regarding site take-down, that "The new version now exempts U.S. sites like ours." (see also e.g. Techdirt - Pirate Bay immune). Why do you believe the mortal peril misinformation?

Q: But laws can be misused! A: Haven't you just created a grotesque Wikipedian version of the terrorist-scaremongering "One Percent Doctrine" where "If there's a 1% chance that (a proposed law can be used against Wikipedia), we have to treat it as a certainty in terms of our response.". Obviously, that way lies madness. So what would determine when there's a protest? Practically, when those in power start beating the war-drums.

-- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 16:59, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]

So nothing-ish. :/ That's kinda what I had thought...well then, is there any specific part of Wikipedia that would be majorly affected - not the big broad stuff that we all hear about, but a feature of this site specific to Wikipedia that would be affected, and is in some way different from the 'other' websites out there opposing this bill? Nolelover Talk·Contribs 18:12, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
I don't think there's anything that would "majorly" affect Wikipedia. The proof of this is that above, General Counsel labored mightily to produce a "parade of horribles", and at best, came up with a scenario that under some possible (though not certain, but to be fair, not utterly absurd) interpretations, Wikipedia might have to remove some links. This is offensive in principle, but practically I'd say pretty minor. Especially given the way link-removal and spam-blacklisting is sometimes used as a political matter in Wikipedia. -- Seth Finkelstein (talk) 18:42, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
Alright, thanks for the answers. :) Nolelover Talk·Contribs 19:07, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]
J. Howard Miller's "We Can Do It!" poster

We Can Do It! (a Wikipedia article about a war time poster, also known as "Rosie the Riveter") by Binksternet has an interesting example of unintended consequences of copyrighting. According to the article, although Norman Rockwell produced a similar poster that was used to sell war bonds and appeared on the cover of the Memorial Day issue of the Saturday Evening Post, following the war, the Rockwell painting gradually sank from public memory because it was copyrighted; all of Rockwell's paintings were vigorously defended by his estate after his death. This protection resulted in the original painting gaining value—it sold for nearly $5 million in 2002. Mathew Townsend (talk) 21:36, 15 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]

  • Techdirt's Mike Masnick complaining about other people not knowing what they are talking about when it comes to copyrights is just insane. The guy's whole shtick is to completely misrepresent what the laws and court decisions actually say to try to justify pretty much any and all copyright violations he hears about. Unfortunately a lot of the people opposing copyright enforcement are being misled by similar voices saying equally incorrect things. It's propaganda, nothing less, and a lot of well-meaning but naive Internet activists are following it to support businesses who actively and knowingly profit off of wide scale copyright violations. Wikipedia has a huge group of equally deluded folks running around talking about things they are woefully misinformed about. DreamGuy (talk) 19:24, 19 February 2012 (UTC)[reply]


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