The Immorality of the Internet

(Originally Posted at The League of Extraordinary Writers)

Two weeks ago in this space, I posted about a discussion I had with the owner of an ebook pirating website, and went on to explain why I believe it’s immoral both to consume and to provide pirated copies of copyrighted works.

I’ve continued to think about this issue because it’s important to me both as a writer and as a reader. An environment in which the value of writing drops to zero would impoverish me personally and the literary world in general. Yet people who love to read pirate books. Why? I found my answer in the book I read today, You Are Not a Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

Part of the reason digital piracy flourishes is the fundamental immorality of the internet as currently designed. (No, I’m not talking about porn sites–I’m talking about this blog, YouTube, Facebook: the bits of the internet all of us use every day.) How can that be, you ask? Isn’t the internet just a tool that can be used for good or ill?

While the internet certainly contains numerous tools, it’s more than that–it has become an environment in which many of us spend a significant fraction of our lives. And that environment–or any environment, for that matter–has a profound influence on our actions.

The popular conception of morality is that it’s something innate to individuals. Most people think of themselves as moral, but can readily identify others (a mother-in-law, a spouse’s friends) who aren’t. In fact, for most of us, morality has far more to do with our circumstances than any innate characteristic. A famous study Malcolm Gladwell discusses in The Tipping Point found that most seminarians would stop to help a person in distress if they were told they had plenty of time before their lecture, but only 10% of them would stop if they were told they were late. To a lecture on the Good Samaritan, no less. Similarly, cities have discovered that they can cut crime rates merely by cleaning up graffiti and broken windows–the people haven’t changed, but the environment around them has.

Would thousands of people have stolen ASHFALL if they had to come into my house and look me in the eye as they took it? Of course not. The internet is immoral as currently designed precisely because it creates conditions in which immoral behavior is easy, anonymous (or nearly so), and so widespread as to become a social norm. (Lanier never calls the current design of the internet immoral, by the way, but that’s the logical outcome of his arguments about transient anonymity and mob behavior.)

I can hear the howls of protest from pirates. File-sharing is not stealing, they will say. I’m not depriving anyone else of a book when I pirate it. And in a sense, they’re right. Stealing is an inadequate metaphor for digital piracy. Lanier suggests a better one when he compares digital piracy to counterfeiting.

Currency and books only have value (except perhaps as fire-starters) when they’re scarce. Counterfeiting doesn’t take money from anyone–rather, it devalues all money in exactly the same way that digital piracy devalues all content. Counterfeiting is a worse crime than theft because it hurts the entire society, not just one individual. That’s why faking a $100 bill (or even just holding a fake with fraudulent intent) is a felony that will get you 15 years, while shoplifting a $100 item is only a misdemeanor. Counterfeiting undermines the value of currency; digital piracy undermines the value of most types of creative endeavor. Piracy is far worse than mere theft. In fact, the term pirate has too much of a romantic connotation–let’s call them counterfeiters instead.

I can hear more counterfeiter howls. Elitist, they will cry. Everyone should have ebooks, even if they can’t pay! Information wants to be free! I actually agree with the first statement. Everyone should have access to books–which is why copyrights are issued for a limited period (and why recent expansions of that period should be rolled back). There are literally tens of millions of books that are free and legal to distribute. Recent titles should be distributed in physical and digital form by free public libraries which have paid for the rights to the books.

The second statement is so wrong-headed it’s dangerous. It places information–bits in our computers–above the humans who consume and create it. And remember, “worthless” is a synonym for “free.” True freedom demands a rich flow of information which can only be achieved by paying for the efforts of content creators–if information ever does become free, humans won’t be.

What can we do? Lanier suggests that we redesign the internet, putting into place a system that rewards content creators and prevents the worst abuses to civility. He proposes placing content in the cloud, rather than on our devices, and charging a small fee that compensates creators when the content is accessed. Another idea he espouses is ending all forms of transient anonymity, so that bad behavior will follow its perpetrators, whether they’re anonymous or not–i.e. you’d still be able to be anonymous on the internet only by assuming a persistent fake identity.

What do you think will help end piracy and make the internet a more moral place? Let me know in the comments, please. 

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