Seminar 4 – Power, Policy and Governance

Things are hotting up! Just to re-cap, in the lecture this week, we looked at power, policy and governance – focusing specifically on issues surrounding the freedom of information and online copyright infringement. In the lecture we focused on a speech by Lawrence Lessig – Laws That Choke Creativity for TED, in which he discussed the power of user-generated content and the imagination and creativity behind the re-write culture.

In the seminar, we began by quickly discussing our reactions to the Lessig speech, then moved on to discuss issues surrounding figures such as Aaron Swartz, the SOPA Bill and the continuing debate surrounding copyright laws and the policing of online space.

How much of your online information do you think has been viewed by people you didn’t intend to view it? Do you think any of it breaks any copyright laws? Do you believe your Facebook messages are read by people other than the recipient/s? Why is it against EU law to share a witty meme on your Facebook page and yet completely above board for Google to assess your search history in order to show you targeted advertisements based on your browser history? In todays society, questions around how to govern copyright online and how to allow people Freedom of Speech without contravening peoples Human Rights are at the forefront of many minds, especially those involved in politics, technology and the media.


Back in 2011, a bill – Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) was proposed to the United States House of Representatives, the bill detailed plans to combat online copyright infringement. This included court orders requiring Internet service providers to block access to certain websites and expanding existing laws to include imposing a maximum sentence of five years in prison for those convicted of unauthorized streaming. In short, Sky and other ISP would be ordered to block sites that are found to distribute ‘copyright’ material and if you watch your favourite programme online via a streaming website because you don’t pay for specific satellite channels you could end up spending 5 years in prison.

Of course this bill was proposed in America not the UK but, you can see why many people and groups – from all over the world, were set against SOPA from the start. In fact, in response to the proposed bill, services such as Wikipedia and Google co-ordinated a blackout and conducted surveys – Google reportedly collected over 162 million signatures from people opposing the Bill. Why all the fuss? People believed that the legislation would threaten free speech, Human Rights and innovation, and enabled law enforcement to block access to entire domains during to infringing content, when the content in question could simply be one blog post or ‘buzz’ word.

Eventually SOPA was scrapped as it had gained too much notoriety and public opposition from citizens all over the world as well as big and small organizations. However, those who had championed the Bill insisted that something of the same ilk was needed in order to crack down on illegal internet services and online copyright infringement.

Aaron Swartz

One particular case study we looked at was the arrest of Aaron Swartz. Swartz had already acquired a vast amount of recognition by 2011 as he was involved with several big name projects, including the development of the web feed RSS, Creative Commons and the social news site Reddit where he became a co-owner after a merger with his own company Infogami. He was also a high-profile campaigner against SOPA, founding the online group Demand Progress in protest against the proposed Bill, he organised a number of rallies and demonstrations with the group.

In January 2011, Swartz was arrested for breaking and entering charges after he connected his laptop to the MIT network whilst hidden in a closet on site and began downloading academic journal articles from JSTOR (Journal Storage) after logging into a guest user account on the MIT network which had been earlier allocated to him. He was charged with wire fraud, computer fraud, unlawfully obtaining information from a protected computer and recklessly damaging a protected computer. MIT claimed that the Swartz accessed the MIT network  without prior authorization and with full knowledge of the illegality of his actions, they alleged that Swartz’s attack brought down some of their servers and deprived computers access to JSTOR research. Swartz downloaded over 4 million articles from JSTOR using the MIT network and if convicted for the charges he faced, would have been sentenced to up to 35 years in prison and a fine of up to $1 million.

So why did he do it? Over the course of a few weeks Swartz downloaded academic journals to which he was granted access via an authorized account given to him by stint of being a research fellow at Harvard University. This entire case brings up a number of issues around fair-use and freedom of information. Swartz believed that everyone should have access to the information stored on JSTOR at MIT, rather than the select few who had been given authorization. However, if these journals are the property of MIT does that give somebody the right to take that property for themselves? I’m not going to make any conclusions online and rather keep my specific opinions to myself, all I wanted to do here was outline the issues surrounding the case and explore what actually happened.

I should mention at this point that Aaron Swartz committed suicide before this case could come to and end, after a long, drawn out process where he was subjected to a vast amount of accusations and threats. Swartz was offered various deals if he admitted to the charges and thereby accepted in front of the world that he had done something wrong and should therefore be punished, Swartz denied every offer. After his death, it was concluded that Swartz faced overzealous prosecution and the 13 charges brought against him were a case of ‘over-charging’ and that the powers that be were making an explicit example out of him and attempting to prove that SOPA, was a necessary measure.


So now you’ve read my (hopefully) thought provoking blog post about online privacy, what do you reckon? Do we have the right to use streaming websites and remain anonymous online? Game of Thrones is one of the most pirated and illegally downloaded/streams media of all time, but the creators are thrilled about it, because no  matter the medium, their message is getting out and their creation is being seen by millions. They see this as a positive, but those in power do not. Why is that do you think? These issues surrounding copyright infringement are all down to the colliding interests and power struggles related to the development and control of the internet. Those in power do not see the internet as something everybody should have access to and be able to use in the way they see fit, but rather it is something they must own and govern.

Personally I’d be happy to talk for hours about the legalities of freedom of information and copyright infringement laws but I reckon this post is as long as it should be! Although we covered a number of other areas in the seminar in more detail, I wanted to build upon what was discussed in the seminar instead and think about some of the key issues. What it comes down to at the end of the day is considering why those in power want to control and restrict internet access via ISP and stricter copyright laws and who will this affect the most?


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