Written by Greta Hyland
If you haven’t noticed the similarity between land and information yet, let me point it out. It is no small coincidence that the age-old battle over public verses private land has shifted in our age to include information and the public domain. The battle is the same: whoever owns it controls it and stands to profit from it. The battle is fierce and those most susceptible to caving are politicians whose campaigns depend on those corporate dollars.
Like winning the Revolutionary War is somewhat shocking to comprehend in light of the odds stacked against America, ensuring access to public land in a corporate landscape is a reality that is equally as shocking. And now, having an open public domain on the web, which was how the founder of the internet intended it, is a loophole that many corporate conglomerates would like to close. The defeat of SOPA and PIPA and this new FCC ruling on net neutrality all came as a shocking surprise. Why? Because everyone assumed it would be the other way around.
In “The Internet’s Own Boy,” a documentary about Aaron Swartz (Google him and watch the documentary), David Sirota, political commentator and nationally syndicated columnist, said, “Typically in Washington, the legislative fights are fights between different sets of corporate monied interests and they are all duking it out to pass legislation. The fights that are the closest are when you have one set of corporate interests against another set of corporate interests and they are financially equally matched, as far as campaign contributions and lobbying [goes]. Those are the closest ones. The ones that aren’t even fights, typically are when all the money is on one side, all the corporations are on one side and just billions of people on the other side.”
When SOPA and PIPA were being proposed in Congress, there were 40 congressional signatories on the bill. It was supposed to pass without even a blip on the radar – but it didn’t, and it surprised not only those who drafted and proposed the bill, not only the corporations, but those in the grassroots, open-access movement who fought against it. No one thought there was any chance of defeating it, but it was a fight worth fighting, and so many did.
The same was true for net neutrality. Prior to the FCC’s ruling on net neutrality I read article after article laced with defeat and predictions of doom over the anticipated ruling. But again, it was shockingly defeated.
This is huge. It’s huge because it shows us that we can still beat the money. Like our politicians want to sell off our land to the highest bidders and lock it away from the public, there are many who would like to do the same on the internet. But you have to pay attention because it comes packaged with verbiage that sounds right and appealing. SOPA was sold as a copyright law – which on the surface sounded great; except that any company that claimed a copyright infringement could shut down an entire website.
The scary thing about laws is that once they get passed, it takes more than an act of congress to remove them. How many politicians do you see running on a platform of getting rid of laws? There are so many laws on the books that every man, woman, and child is probably breaking half a dozen a day – from a law against skiing and snowboarding too fast, to who a farmer can give milk to, we are going to legislate all of our rights away.
But, as Tim O’Reilly said, “The law is the operating system of our democracy.”
Without laws, there is no way to work out individual rights or group conflicts. They are necessary; otherwise the strong would just trample the weak and the weak would have no recourse. Regulations are the same. We are not very good at regulating ourselves – we might think we are, but wait until you get into a car accident with an uninsured driver – you can bet your ass you will be glad there are laws that protect your interests. Without that law you would be left to the mercy of the person who just smashed up your car.
But if we are not vigilant about what laws are being passed, we will end up with something like SOPA that protects corporate interests at the expense of our own. The only reason corporations lobby congress is to protect their own interests. If we aren’t lobbying congress and looking out for our own, who is?
Net neutrality is huge. It’s huge for us because it ensures access – just like public land ensures access. The internet came about before anyone realized the potential – and yes, public access, open access, is shocking. At this point it is a public trust – or it should be. Just like we have access to public land, we should have access to an open internet. No one would want to pay private property owners to see Zion National Park – or worse, have it locked away for the wealthiest citizens who could afford to live there. The same is true of the internet. It is bad for everyone when the most powerful and wealthy companies can determine how information is disseminated and who gets heard.
Congress may be one big house of monied interests, but when the outcry by the people is loud enough, it gives Congress the support it needs to grow a backbone and do the right thing. That was the case with net neutrality.
Aaron Swartz said that back before the internet, companies were limited by air space. Broadcasting companies could only get maybe 10 channels; cable companies 500. But with the internet, it is unlimited. Everyone can have a channel.
As Swartz said, “Everyone has a way of expressing themselves. And so what you see now is not a question of who gets access to the airwaves, it’s a question of who gets control over how you find people. You start seeing power centralizing in sites like google. They are gatekeepers that tell you where on the internet you want to go. It’s not only that certain people have a license to speak; everyone has a license to speak. It’s a question of who gets heard.”
It’s a question of who gets heard. What if Aaron Swartz and others in the tech community had been shut down under some new internet law and SOPA had passed? What makes the internet so special is that it is open; we have access to it. We have access to information, to be informed, and to be heard. We should never become lackadaisical when it comes to that privilege. We should not fear experts or intelligence; we should aspire to it, listen to it, and support it – because those are the people who will raise flags on legislation that is bad for everyone.
Congress may be able to get away with dismissing experts, scientists, and computer “geeks”, but we cannot afford to. They are the last line of defense against a corporately owned congress – they are our collective eyes and ears who will sound the alarm for the greater good. Don’t fear regulations, those will protect you – fear those who use corporate lawyers and money to benefit themselves by trying to own or control something that you have a right to.
Greta Hyland has a Masters degree in Environmental Policy & Management and has worked for the BLM and the NPS as well as for non-profit organizations. She is a regular contributor to the Utah Adventure Journal and is the Copy Editor at the Independent. She writes regularly on her blog about environmental policy issues affecting the southwest, as well as personal narratives about outdoor recreation and simple living. Her blog can be found at www.thesouthwestjournal.wordpress.com A Utah native, Greta is a consummate desert rat and loves exploring the southwest. She can be reached at [email protected]