The Role of Digital Surveillance in Stopping the Past’s Rebirth

Vader Sings!Most of the music that I listen to clearly borrows from the past, takes technologies of the present, and creates the music of the future again. To be clear, I’m not suggesting that the electronic beats that I listen to are going to be what everyone listens to, or that Bossa Nova and Samba are going to be predominant music genre in your home (though they should *grin*). No, what I’m saying is that digital technologies facilitate the appropriation of past cultural artifacts that were produced for consumption, and then subsequently modify and make them the artist’s own. Take a look at the below YouTube video for a demonstration of taking up a past cultural artifact (part of an episode from the West Wing) and modifying it to make a contemporary political statement:

Taking the past and making it one’s own isn’t anything new; artists have been reinterpreting prior songs/artwork/performances and making a buck off their reinterpretation for a long, long time. What is new is:

  1. The relative ease of participating in the culture in a massive fashion (using YouTube, blogs, etc.).
  2. The relatively low costs of entry to participating in culture.
  3. The broad willingness to share new cultural artifacts (like the above YouTube video) for free.
  4. The potent surveillance mechanisms that watch for infringing use and are used to sue culture-producers into the stone age for being cultural agents instead of remaining as dormant culture consumers.

We need to rethink copyright law and the enforcement of it, so that culture is again set free. As it stands, my future is far less ‘free’ from that of my grandparents; I’m not free to speak, to engage in topics that interest me, or share my culture. To do so would infringe on someone else’s idea, and that could get me sued into the stone age. As a result, I don’t write about certain things, I refuse particular interviews, and so forth, on the basis that I fear for my financial safety. I’m concerned about chilling speech because it affects me, and because I don’t see any legal support structure to save my ass when (not if) the copyright cartels come knocking on my door.

Digital surveillance apparatuses, like Deep Packet Inspection appliances, scare the hell out of me because all of a sudden there is pervasive worry that the copyright cartel will manage to convince ISPs to watch for anything that could constitute infringing use. What, precisely, constitutes such use? (I doubt that Canadian Copyright: A Citizen’s Guide will provide you with all your answers.) Is there some kind of a clear warning when I go to do something online that tells me to avoid looking at a YouTube video, or do I get the pleasure of finding out that I’m infringing after the fact, with ISP routing logs to demonstrate that I was, in fact, infringing at a particular date-stamp? Given the lack of an easy to access (let alone existence!) to an Intellectual Property and Copyright database, how can I possibly know what is or isn’t infringing use? Should I just spend a week calling large IP holders before checking out a video somewhere (given that in the process of streaming content, I’m copying it temporarily to RAM, and thus could be accused of infringing behaviour)?

I occasionally get asked whether or not I’m for a free and open Internet; I think that my answer is a conditional ‘yes’. I’m opposed to surveillance on the basis that I think that it infringes on my basic rights and liberties, and because it endangers the growth of hybrid cultures. Surveillance, through its potent chilling speech possibilities, can prevent our return to the past where ‘infringement’ was rampant and culture thrived. I want to go back to that part of the past, and enjoy the freedoms that my grandparents had and fought for. I see ubiquitous digital surveillance as the mechanism of the powerful to chill freedom itself, and such surveillance must be resisted.