Today BBC News reported that an Irish court has ordered six internet service providers in that country to block users' access to popular file-sharing website The Pirate Bay. As usual (at least 10 other countries have implemented similar restrictions), the ban comes on the heels of complaints from big record labels that The Pirate Bay facilitates the unauthorized sharing of copyrighted material.
It's not a shocking notion. The Pirate Bay, which was founded in Sweden about a decade ago by an anti-copyright organization, has long been known as a spot to snap up tunes without a credit card. If you type "free music" into Google, the entire first page of results references, or directs you to, The Pirate Bay. Three of the site's co-founders, along with a site financier, even did prison time after being convicted of copyright violations.
My contention isn't that The Pirate Bay has clean hands (though there is indeed some content on the site that can be shared without violating copyright laws). What I do believe is that resorting to blanket government Internet censorship is a bad way to handle the problem.
Punish those operating the site with full knowledge that it is a de facto illegal download factory? O.K. Go after the users who are knowingly downloading the copyrighted content? I guess (though seeking million-dollar judgments against midwestern moms seems a bad PR strategy for a music industry that has itself facilitated the copyright crisis by so stubbornly refusing to offer viable legal alternatives). But don't take a sledgehammer to free speech and declare a website off limits to the population of an entire country.
What about those in Ireland who were using (or would have used) The Pirate Bay for legitimate purposes? There's nothing inherently evil or illegal about file sharing per se, and one can imagine many legal reasons for visiting. Maybe a fledgling band wants to build a reputation and is trying to get its music into the hands of as many listeners as possible. Maybe a sociologist wants to study current music preferences or trends. Maybe a journalist wants to inform readers about what really is offered on the site. I visited The Pirate Bay in the course of writing this piece. (Canada is not among the countries that have blocked access.) And while my main conclusion from the visit was no weightier than that South Park is right -- the Internet is for porn -- I still very much appreciated the ability to judge the evidence for myself rather than rely on a court's decision that I'd be better off without access to this particular information because I'm too likely to steal some of it.
As chilling as I find the idea of top-down censoring of swathes of speech and data that are not problematic in themselves, there are other considerations that counsel against forced blocking too. First and foremost, it doesn't work. Users have demonstrated time and again that they will respond to such blocks with proxy sites that get around the restrictions. Block the proxies and they'll just create new ones. Unless a government plans on implementing the sorts of authoritarian levels of control of a country like China or Cuba, it's never going to win the battle to suppress access to online information.
That might be bad news for the record industry. But it's ultimately good news for the rest of us.
Though it may have the unfortunate consequence of facilitating copyright violation, an online world of info that is beyond government suppression also has the consequence of ensuring that people can inform the world of their struggles and ideas, debate and bring up controversial issues, and organize reform and rights movements. On the whole, the porn sharing is going to take up more of the bandwidth than these crucial, worthy endeavours. But that's the way free speech works. You've got to take the bad with the good, otherwise you'll soon have none at all.
You see, a government that blocks its citizens from accessing The Pirate Bay (or tries to) is one step closer to being a government that also blocks its citizens from accessing a website that threatens to foment insurrection by being critical of the ruling powers or political system. If the right to check out a file-sharing site doesn't get you excited, what about the right to check out a brutally revealing critique of your country's leadership? Isn't defending the former worth it to protect the latter? But we tend not to bother because we dismiss the whole matter as a debate about torrents and Daft Punk downloads. The key is to remember what is at stake. We're talking about our right to read, view, or listen to information. It is possible to defend copyright without taking such generous bites out of our freedom. It should be a priority to demand that governments enforce copyright in ways that don't penalize the innocent and that don't attempt to hide legal expression from view.
It can be done. But it won't be unless we make a stink.