Darknet

I have been subscribed to J.D. Lasica’s blog for some time, so I looked forward to reading his book, Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation1. But despite the rich supply of research and interviews with insiders to the conflict around copyright and piracy, I found the book disappointing and lacking in depth.

For me, Lasica’s best subject was Forest. As a movie pirate and double agent, Forest was paid by Hollywood to infiltrate deep into film sharing networks. In return, he kept his bosses informed of the techniques and activities of the pirates. He is an ambiguous character: on the one hand, he was a spy; on the other, he didn’t necessarily share the perspectives of his masters. Forest is a fascinating character: proud of his skills, of his contacts, of the romance of his double life. Now retired from espionage, he has turned his sights to providing legal downloads. He appreciates why people pirate, and doesn’t believe the practice can be stopped. Of his daughter’s music piracy, he says “I don’t condone her pirating material, but that’s how kids get their music these days2.” At one point he offers Lasica access to his library of pirated movies.

The tension between Forest’s profession and his activities echoes through the book as Lasica searches for a middle way between freewheeling piracy on the one hand and respect for intellectual property and the law on the other. Lasica touches on the major issues: how stopping down copying can shut down creativity, the social acceptance of piracy, the political dimensions of copying as speech. Yet the book seems bounded by conventional discourse about copyright, participation, and creativity. When his subjects raise one of the big questions, Lasica notes it, but he does not deal with the necessary consequences.

The most important failing is the handling of democracy and freedom. For me, democracy is central to the argument for weaker copyright. This is something understood well by other writers on the topic; Yochai Benkler’s The Wealth of Networks stands out in this regard for its emphasis on the essential role of speech in underpinning democracy. The special importance of speech elevates debates about copyright beyond questions of whether music filesharing is right or wrong. Without speech, this is simply another question of economics and policy with no particular claim to political or moral importance.

The book does describe how Diebold, a manufacturer of electronic voting machines in the U.S., used copyright laws to hinder distribution of information about security vulnerabilities in its products3. In this context Lasica quotes Ian Clarke, founder of Freenet (a network used to communicate the problem with Diebold despite the legal problems) saying, “Ultimately, what is more important to you: copyright or freedom of communication, which is essential to democracy4?” This is an essential question without simple answers. But Lasica hardly follows up. Five pages about politics are buried in a chapter about the construction of file sharing networks. Two pages after this quote, the book returns to its focus on movies and music. Politics don’t appear in Lasica’s ten point recommendations at the end. The book claims “the Internet is not an entertainment medium5.” But it doesn’t seem to be interested in what that means.

Similarly, the book fails to investigate the political relevance of art and cultural forms. It discusses the participation of audiences and contrasts consumers with users (but not with citizens). The distinction, however, between users as first-class creators and as second-class contributors to existing industries is blurred. Writing of fan materials, Lasica suggests DVDs should include fan commentaries6. It’s a nice idea, but it only reinforces the subordinate position of the audience. Too often the book’s support of participatory culture and media elides with a sharecropping mentality in which the media industries remain firmly in control. In fact, the promise of revitalizing these industries and their dominant players is a refrain throughout the book. Lasica believes the “media companies need to learn to let go.” The problem, he believes, is not a fundamental difference of interests between companies and citizens, but a misunderstanding on the part of Hollywood and the RIAA who really would be better off if they acquiesced to change that challenges their dominance.

Weak analysis is also a symptom of the book’s treatment of piracy. Piracy is central to darknets – digital networks designed to conceal the activity and identities of their users, typically file sharing. Lasica interviews people with varying perspectives on piracy and its opponents (although artists are largely absent). Some oppose it outright, some attempt to justify it, others accept it as unstoppable. At one point the book explains how the recording industry exploits artists; most musicians likely benefit from file trading. Courtney Love says the whole industry “is based on piracy7“. Yet Lasica himself appends a comments reducing the issue to simple right and wrong: “All of this is not to excuse fans who routinely download music illegally for free. That’s wrong8.”

The problem is that although he repeatedly makes such statements, nowhere does he investigate or justify his stance. There are many good arguments in support of his position against “routine” piracy (about democratic governance and the rule of law, the fact that paying an artist benefits her more than pirating her music, and so on). Lasica never deploys them. Against them stand the amoral behavior of many of the companies involved, the lobbying and influence that led to draconian laws, the enclosure of culture and the dangers to democracy. Lasica doesn’t deal with these either. The problem is not that his position is not legitimate – it is. The problem is that the book fails to be critical and searching in its exploration of the moral issues connected to speech and copyright.

Despite my criticisms, I think at some level Lasica “gets it” – but he doesn’t let on. Perhaps his journalist’s instincts get in the way, leading him to restrict his commentary and tempting him to return repeatedly to the glitter of Hollywood. The contradictions lie latent. Lasica looks at the issues, but he doesn’t see them. Speaking of restrictive technologies and laws, he writes:

In the end, this may be the greatest potential loss to society: the service that never rolls out, the device that never gets invented, the cultural advancement that never takes place – all for fear of a Hollywood lawsuit8.

No. The greatest potential is for citizens to create, to share, and to participate in their society. The greatest potential victim is democracy.

Notes

1 J.D. Lasica, Darknet: Hollywood’s War against the Digital Generation, US, Wiley, 2005.

2 p. 65

3 Update 2006-06-19: Oops. I mistakenly credited Darknet with David Bollier’s introduction to Silent Theft when I wrote, “The book starts well, with an excellent description of how one company uses copyright to charge for access to American legal decisions.”

4 p. 227

5 p. 264

6 p. 78

7 p. 194

8 p. 196

9 p. 119

2006-06-15

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