Why Is It Rocket Science That Laws Should Apply Online Too?

Opinion

One of the primary demands of the Pirate Party has been that the same laws that apply offline should also apply online. I think it's an entirely reasonable thing to demand; the Internet is not a special case, but part of reality. The problems appear when an obsolete but powerful industry realizes that this just and equal application of laws means they can't enforce a distribution monopoly any longer.

To understand the absurdity of the copyright industry’s demands, we must pause and consider which rights we take for absolute granted in the analog world. These are rights that already apply in the digital part of reality as well, but are somehow hidden in a legal game of hide-and-seek.

Let’s look at what rights I have when I communicate through analog channels with somebody — using paper, a pen, an envelope and a stamp. The same rights should apply when using a digital communications channel instead, at least theoretically, since the law doesn’t differentiate between methods of communication. Unfortunately for the copyright industry, the enforcement of these our rights online would mean that the copyright monopoly becomes utterly unenforceable, so the copyright industry is now attacking these fundamental rights on every level. But that doesn’t mean our rights aren’t there.

When I write a letter to somebody, I and I alone choose whether I identify myself in the letter inside the envelope, on the outside of the envelope, both, or neither. It is my prerogative completely whether I choose to communicate anonymously or not. This is a right we have in analog communications and in law; it is perfectly reasonable to demand that the law applies online as well.

When I write a letter to somebody, nobody has the right to intercept the letter in transit, break its seal and examine its contents unless I am under formal, individual and prior suspicion of a specific crime. In that case, law enforcement (and only them) may do this. Of course, I am never under any obligation to help anybody open and interpret my letters. It is perfectly reasonable to demand that this applies online as well.

When I write a letter to somebody, no third party has the right to alter the contents of the letter in transit or deny its delivery entirely. Shouldn’t it be perfectly reasonable to demand that this applies online as well?

When I write a letter to somebody, nobody has the right to stand at the mailbox and demand that they be able to log all my communications: who I am communicating with, when, and for how long. Again, to demand that this applies online as well would only be logical.

When I write a letter to somebody, the mailman carrying that letter to its recipient is never responsible for what I choose to write about (the messenger immunity). And yes, it is perfectly reasonable to demand that this applies online as well.

All of these are under systematic attack by the copyright industry. They are suing ISPs and demanding that they install wiretapping and censoring equipment in the middle of their switching racks; they are constantly gnawing at the messenger immunity (mere conduit and common carrier principle), they are demanding the authority to identify people who communicate, they want the authority to deny us our right to exercise fundamental rights at all, and they have the balls to suggest censorship to safeguard the distribution monopoly.

All of the above stems from the fact that any digital communications channel that can be used for private correspondence, can also always be used to transfer digitizations of copyrighted works — and you can’t tell which is which without giving the copyright industry the right to break the seal of private correspondence, which is a right I’m never prepared to surrender.

These are civil liberties that our forefathers fought, bled, and died to give us. It is beyond obscene that an obsolete middleman industry is demanding that we give them up to preserve an entertainment monopoly, all while demanding more powers than we are even giving the police to catch real criminals. Then again, this is nothing new.

When photocopiers arrived in the 1960s, book publishers tried to have them banned on the grounds that they could be used to copy books which would then be sent in the mail. Everybody told the publishers tough luck: while the copyright monopoly still is valid, that gives them no right to break the seal on communications just to look for copyright infringements, so they can’t do anything about it. That still applies offline. It is perfectly reasonable to demand that it applies online as well.

The copyright industry sometimes complains that the Internet is a lawless land and that the same laws and rights that apply offline should apply online as well. In this, I could not agree more.

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Rick Falkvinge is a regular columnist on TorrentFreak, sharing his thoughts every other weekend. He is the founder of the Swedish Pirate Party, a whisky aficionado, and a low-altitude motorcycle pilot. His blog at http://falkvinge.net focuses on information policy.

Follow Rick Falkvinge on Twitter as @Falkvinge and on Facebook as /rickfalkvinge.

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