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Update: It gets worse. Our government has an “Irish SOPA” in the works. More or less draconian? It’s hard to say – they seem content to leave the scope and force of this legal power entirely up to (whisper it: technologically illiterate) judges.

Many websites, US-based ones especially, shut themselves down today. You probably know it’s about legislation before the US congress to block websites linking copyright material. Someone on RTÉ Radio 1 described it as “The entertainment industry versus the technology industry”, but that’s quite wrong. The fight is between the entertainment industry, and all of us. Hollywood and the record companies on one hand, freedom on the other.

Yet they’re winning. It’s an incredibly wealthy industry, and it will go to ever more desperate lengths to stay that way. Its advantage is vast economies of scale: You can make a record or film once and sell it to millions and millions of people – often several times.

Its disadvantage? Mainly, a business model that is as dead as the mastodon.

This industry arose out of the application of mass production technologies to the arts – the reproduction and rapid distribution of vast numbers of music and video recordings. It made sense to charge handsomely for this when it was a remarkable technical feat that you could not possibly accomplish yourself. Now however the reproduction and distribution of such things is, quite simply, trivial. And it is hard to persuade people to pay for something they can easily do for themselves.

So instead, the entertainment industry has resorted to threats. Continually it lobbies for more and more draconian legislation. And they are getting it, and they will continue to get it, because they are rich, and politicians are hungry. Plus they share an interest. When freedom of information can bring down governments in the Middle East, government may begin to think that the entertainment industry has a point.

So after only a few decades of freedom from literary censorship here in Ireland, there are now websites I cannot reach – not at least if I use Eircom as my ISP. In the UK, British Telecom set up a filter system expressly to block child pornography. As a child could have predicted, and despite every assurance to the contrary, this filter is now being used to uphold the interests of Big Entertainment. And in the US they’re debating whether to give that industry the right to take down websites at will, a power that can only be called commercial censorship. To quote Wikipedia:

SOPA and PIPA are badly drafted legislation that won’t be effective at their stated goal (to stop copyright infringement), and will cause serious damage to the free and open Internet. They put the burden on website owners to police user-contributed material and call for the unnecessary blocking of entire sites. Small sites won’t have sufficient resources to defend themselves. Big media companies may seek to cut off funding sources for their foreign competitors, even if copyright isn’t being infringed. Foreign sites will be blacklisted, which means they won’t show up in major search engines. And, SOPA and PIPA build a framework for future restrictions and suppression.

Essentially the old medium is demanding the right to wreck the new.

But the world is not changing just for Big Entertainment. I make my living from creative work, I have had to adjust to reality. The publishing industry is transforming – not without pain, but at least without demanding protection. And it’s not like show business is going to disappear. People will always make money out of entertainment – just not the ludicrous fortune they make now.

The industry has had its day in the sun, the technology has moved on. Can it please just accept that gracefully, without further undermining the principle of freedom of thought and expression, without incarcerating any more teenagers?

Wikileaks Is Innocent

Some people dismiss the allegations against Julian Assange as trivial. I find that hard to stomach. Making someone do something sexual that they don’t want to do is never trivial. The idea that he is wanted over a breaking condom exists only in the minds of commentators who have waded too deep into rhetoric.

On the other hand, we should be clear that he has not been charged with rape. He has not been charged, in fact, with anything. He was wanted for questioning. There is some confusion about what this is in relation to, but this is partly because Swedish law doesn’t map neatly onto ours, partly because it is not so forthcoming with details of sexual crime allegations.

This has led to confusion and unfortunate speculation, because while on one hand it is pretty clear that the allegations do not amount to rape in Swedish law, on the other it seems that rape in Swedish law is defined exclusively as sexual assault with violence. If rumours are to be believed – and I should emphasise the ‘if’ – the main allegation concerns him continuing to have sex even though he knew a condom had broken. To my mind, yes, that is morally a form of rape. A lesser form perhaps than sex obtained by threats or by drugging someone or taking advantage of their being too drunk to know what they are doing, but unquestionably a case of making someone do something sexual that they didn’t want to do.

Whether it is something you could ever conceivably get a criminal conviction for, that is another question. So it’s true that some circumstances of this investigation look peculiar. But if the Swedish authorities seem to be pursuing him with an unusual level of diligence, one can hope this is because it’s unusual to have such allegations made against someone so in the public eye.

One must hope that.

Because whatever you think of the decisions Wikileaks has made about what to release to the media, it must be remembered that it does nothing illegal itself. If anyone is committing any crime – and again, that is another very big if and another difficult moral question – it is the insiders who leaked the material. Oh, and any American who reads it even after it’s been published – technically that is illegal. So the US Air Force has blocked the website of The Guardian, Columbia students have been warned that discussing the information could damage their careers. It seems to me that if Wikileaks is bringing about this sort of imbecilic institutional reaction, it is definitely doing something right.

Wikileaks is innocent. But I hope that Assange is guilty, or at least under well-founded suspicion. Why? Because the alternative – that sexual crime charges have been falsified against him in order to suppress a threat to US interests – would mean that Western civilisation is on fire and what’s left is not worth pissing on to save.