The Moral Battle Between Pirates and Censors

In a recent interview, Harvard Professor Yochai Benkler raised some serious concerns surrounding the MegaUpload bust. Some of the points made are part of old debates, such as whether a company like MegaUpload should be treated any differently than a company like YouTube in the eyes of the law. One question raised by the professor which may not have been entertained by many prior to the wide public opposition to SOPA is of whether the lobbyist companies currently reaping the benefits of increasingly harsher copyright enforcement confer a strong moral cause for government interference of free market innovation. When a Harvard Professor of Entrepreneurial Legal Studies raises these concerns, perhaps it is time we stop and consider them.

I have to say that, given the limited time he had to work with, I am very impressed with Prof. Benkler’s ability to address many important issues surrounding the MegaUpload case in such a succinct manner. Lack of due process. The legal targeting of an entire industry and the affect that has on the free market. While these topics are deserving of in depth scrutiny on there own, it was the moral issue raised at the end that caught my attention.

Now, I don’t generally like to argue morals because they tend to get a bit sticky with each party holding fast to whichever beliefs they identified themselves as before any debate even begins. How do you decide whose morals are right and whose are wrong?

Do you go by the majority rule? As Benkler stated:

“The moral authority of the networked public is on a different plane than the moral authority of lobbyist companies and that’s an enormous power to be reckoned with.”

This is clearly reflected by the 71% of recently surveyed Americans who feel that censorship is a far worse threat to society than piracy. The millions of people who contacted their government officials in protest of SOPA censorship was so overwhelming, I nearly took for granted that it needs mention.

Something else struck me about this question of morals when he gave his closing statement.

“It’s critically important that this new political force be focused on what will build a network that supports the industry in it’s legitimate needs, not in it’s overstated fears of piracy, for which there is no real data.”

This is something that had occurred to me only recently. If all practical reasons or perceived “bogey man” type threats surrounding the word “piracy” are discounted, then there is not much left to look at other than the moral cause for such extreme legal action. Is there even a moral basis to be found here? Is there a moral excuse for an open legal attack on a rather young industry which had found a popular niche in the marketplace?

Unfortunately, this is not something I can argue for because no matter how hard I try to play devil’s advocate for the legal authorities involved, I can not see a moral motive behind their willingness to take such extreme action on behalf of copyright lobbyists. It is really difficult for one to see anything beyond greed or ignorance as the underlying motive here. Please, I challenge you to raise some moral support for the general attack on innovation by these lobbyists. Just give me one moral argument that has not already been completely refuted. Those of us who have paid close attention to these issues just can’t spend any more time explaining why file-sharing does not equal theft.

There is no strong practical or moral argument to justify the tremendous money and resources that go into preventing innovative companies from settling their own business conflicts with the established industry in a civil (not criminal) court of law.

That said, Prof. Benkler is right. It is time to focus on what is best for society as a whole. Granted, that includes even the lobbyists who insist that we drag them kicking and screaming toward progress. It’s not that we hate you, lobbyists. It’s just that, you know, things have been kind of rough for the rest of us lately and we could really use new industries, jobs and the many benefits that the internet actually offers us in spite of you.

It is a great time to take a look at the solutions and benefits that lie in wait for us all. This type of progress is inevitable and the rest of the world has a moral duty to see it meet our common needs instead of waiting around for the industry to keep up.

Update: This post was published as a guest post at TorrentFreak.

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