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Making Media
Part 5

According to current copyright legislation, this new form of free speech is simply a new type of theft. Information must always remain a commodity within cyberspace. Yet, within the Net, free speech is evolving into the fluid process of ‘interactive creativity’. Information exists as commodities, gifts and hybrids of the two. Oblivious to this growing contradiction, politicians carry on tightening the legal protection of copyright at both national and international levels. [35] They are determined to help their local media corporations to compete successfully within the global marketplace. As a result, the letter of law criminalises the on-line activities of almost every Net user. For instance, giving away bootleg MP3s is stealing the intellectual property of media corporations. The ‘negative’ concept of media freedom prohibits political censorship only to justify economic censorship. Free trade is state power. [36]

Yet, in their daily lives, everyone knows that there is almost no chance of being punished for swapping MP3s. The existing copyright laws are increasingly unenforceable within the Net. If only for pragmatic reasons, the concept of media freedom now needs be extended beyond freedom from political censorship. For instance, in nineteenth century Europe, Karl Marx argued that free speech shouldn’t be confined within free trade. The Left had to struggle not only against political censorship, but also economic censorship. Crucially, the removal of legal controls was an essential precondition, but not a sufficient foundation for free speech. Everyone also had to have access to the technologies for expressing themselves: the ‘positive’ concept of media freedom. [37] During the Fordist epoch, the Left almost forgot this libertarian definition of free speech. For technical and economic reasons, ordinary people appeared to be incapable of making their own media. Instead, the Left supported public service broadcasting so its leaders could gain access to the airwaves. Free speech was restricted to elected politicians. [38]

With the advent of the Net, this limited vision of media freedom is becoming an anachronism. For the first time, ordinary people can be producers as well as consumers of information. Marx’s ‘positive’ concept of media freedom is now pragmatic politics. Instead of making media for them, the state can help people to make their own media. For instance, public service broadcasters can nurture network communities and telecoms regulators can encourage infrastructure investment. [39] Above all, the state must reverse the recent tightening of the copyright laws. For the ‘positive’ concept of media freedom precludes vigorous economic censorship. The widespread ‘fair use’ of copyright material should be recognised in law as well as in practice. The rigid enforcement of intellectual property must give way to official toleration of more flexible forms of information: bootlegs, copyleft, open source and public domain. ‘Fair use’ is free speech. [40]

For most people, the weakening of copyright protection is someone else’s problem. They are unconcerned that trading of commodities in the old media must co-exist with the circulation of gifts in the new media. [41] Even neo-liberals are realising that the trading of physical commodities is much easier outside the digital Panopticon. While e-commerce will always depend upon legal regulation, ‘interactive creativity’ among Net users has little need for courts and police. When copying is ubiquitous, punishing people for stealing intellectual property will seem perverse. Instead of formal laws, most on-line activities can be regulated by the spontaneous rules of polite behaviour. [42]

‘The more perfect civilisation is, the less occasion has it for government, because the more does it regulate its own affairs, and govern itself...’ [43]

Sooner or later, the state will abandon its attempts to impose economic censorship on the Net. Even the media corporations will eventually have to accept the demise of information Fordism. Instead of copyright enforcement, government intervention can focus on extending and improving access to the Net for all people. The ‘negative’ freedom from state censorship must evolve into the ‘positive’ freedom to make media. In the age of the Net, free speech can become: ‘...the right to make noise... to create one’s own code and work... the right to make the free and revocable choice to interlink with another’s code - that is, the right to compose life.’ [44]

 
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