Piracy and privacy

Internet activists flexed some impressive muscle over the last couple of weeks in working to block Congress from enacting the Stop Online Privacy Act (SOPA), which would have put legal restraints and restrictions on search engines, advertising networks, internet service providers, and other online sites and services as a means of stemming the unauthorized trade of copyrighted works and other forms of intellectual property. The activists were joined in the cause by many large internet companies, including Google, Facebook, and Twitter. The motivations of the corporations and the activists overlapped to some degree, but there were also important differences. The activists were fighting for the cause of freedom; they worried that the bill would impede the flow of information online, to the detriment of people using the net. The corporations had business interests to protect. They feared a wave of litigation and other operational and legal headaches, as well as the possible rise of obstacles to the development of new products and services.

It will be interesting to watch how internet activists will deploy their considerable power in the future, and it will be particularly interesting to watch how much muscle they’ll flex when their opponents on an issue are the same corporations that joined them in the fight against SOPA. We may actually get a good idea of how the “internet spring” will progress very soon – tomorrow, in fact. That’s when, according to reports, the European Commission will unveil a sweeping proposal to defend people’s right and ability to control the personal information that’s collected about them online by internet businesses, advertising syndicates, and media companies. The proposed law, which if approved would take the place of the current hodgepodge of national privacy regulations throughout the EU, would, according to the BBC, require that companies obtain people’s consent before collecting information about them, notify people when they collect data on them and explain how the data will be used and stored, allow people to easily review the data held about them, and allow people to transfer personal data from one company to another. The law also includes what’s being called a “right to be forgotten,” which means that companies would have to delete personal information they store when people request it. Companies would also have to divulge any breaches or losses of personal data within 24 hours.

Data-hungry companies like Google, Facebook, and Twitter have yet to weigh in on the proposal, but if history is a guide they are likely to oppose it. Their opposition will be motivated by some of the same business concerns they had about SOPA: the threat of litigation and operational headaches, and the restriction of some types of innovation, in this case ones that require the unfettered use and exchange of personal data for commercial gain. No doubt, they’ll also whine about how difficult it will be, technically, to obey the law. These are companies that can build a car that can drive itself, but making data collection transparent and giving people tools to control it – well, gee, that’s really hard.

Internet executives like Mark Zuckerberg like to argue that “privacy” is an outdated concern. But when people talk about privacy, what they’re really talking about is freedom: the freedom to be in charge of their own information. Guaranteeing the freedom of information online entails not only questions of flow but also questions of control. Frankly, it sometimes seems like Silicon Valley is more interested in the freedom of data than in the freedom of people.

So will internet activists rise up again, this time to protect people’s freedom to control their information online? If Facebook and Twitter don’t get behind individual rights in this case, will activists organize boycotts of their services as they boycotted those of companies that supported SOPA? Will the Google employees who spoke out eloquently against SOPA on their personal blogs and through social network accounts speak out with equal eloquence in support of the protection of personal privacy? Will Wikipedia go dark for another day? When it comes to shaping the future of the Net, fights about privacy are at least as important as fights about piracy.

8 thoughts on “Piracy and privacy

  1. Espenandersen


    there are huge differences between SOPA and the EU privacy laws – the former are a tool for large organizations to shut down sites suspected of infringement without due process, the latter a platform laying down common rules and rights for individuals.

    There is considerable experience in Europe in running laws like this, decent safe harbor positions etc. The impact on companies like Google will be large, but are at least doable: You have to provide a way to erase your Facebook data, you have to make sure that data collected for one thing cannot be used for something else without permission, and you need to track who accesses what information if it falls within a certain “private” category.

    The biggest change for Google (and other companies) may be that they will need to change their physical infrastructure so that certain kinds of data are stored in certain places in the world. The recent decision by the Norwegian Data Protectorate to disallow business and public organizations to use Google Apps because use may expose private data to the US Patriot Act surveillance (http://appliedabstractions.com/2012/01/24/norwegian-data-inspectorate-outlaws-google-app-use/) is one example of future headaches.

  2. Yves Trlt

    Truth is piracy problematic and identity problematic are somehow tightly linked.

    Or more precisely, the ability to set up a truly non monopolistic non “vertical” atawad environment for buying digital content (whatever the form) on the net, would require a new role and associated “trusted third parties” organisations “m-accounts managers or something”, these organisations being the same for key personal data, allowing to create accounts on any service with full anonimity.

    For the atawad environment aspect (sorry only in french) :


    or text (2007) :


    For the identity aspect :


    Which, let’s not forget, does not require –at all– a single ID for a person to be shared between “actors”(service providers free or not, shops etc), for the things “to work without friction”

    And I am more or less convinced that no “defensive law” around personal data will ever work in the current context. Top priority should be setting up this new role and associated organisations (no unicity required in anyway there, and several required for any trust relationship to be possible with ability to move from one to the other with all your personal licences/contracts login/passwords(or certificates, ie. machine generated passwrds)

    And almost everything is already there in fact.

  3. Seth Finkelstein

    When you write “The activists were joined in the cause by many large internet companies …”, you have it backwards. It should be “The many large internet companies were joined in THEIR cause by activists ….”.

    “So will internet activists rise up again, …”

    No. Or maybe, they will rise up AGAINST privacy, because they will be fed a line that this is going to Censor The Net.

    I am extremely unhappy about the way civil-libertarians are used as unpaid lobbyists. Though there’s nothing I can do about it.

    See my recent blog post:

    Resolutions, SOPA, Wikipedia blackout, Google, etc. essay

  4. Yves Trlt

    “No. Or maybe, they will rise up AGAINST privacy, because they will be fed a line that this is going to Censor The Net.”

    Indeed quite funny (if not a bit pathetic) to have Anonymous hand in hand with Google and facebook, when both gg and fb profess that anonymity and using pseudonyms on the net should now be over.

    See Salman Rushdie story, or for instance below :


    About Titiou Lecoq (writer/journalist) using this pseudonym for many years and asked by facbook, for some more or less unknown reason to produce an ID card as it appeared not to be her real name.

    But having a press card (able to get it under her pseudonym without problem) she swoed up that and it was ok.

    Otherwise maybe still being able to tell the difference between producing some original work and running bittorent on ones PC in order to broadcast copies of publications wouldn’t be that bad ?

    Not to mention that everybody seems to have forgotten that in order to “share” (making it known by them) some book, record film or whatever with your “friends” sending them the title, reference, link, does the job perfectly.

  5. Yves Trlt

    And don’t forget today’s is also about below :


    And quality information is also very important during crisis time, I wouldn’t call not being allowed to broadcast TV shows censorship, I would like to be able to “buy for life” quality website on the other hand, and not to have to deal with files in all places.

    For this you don’t need “cloud”(nothing new there), you need an account with all what you have is being written as references, that’s all, full stop, download on the fly if not in the cache of current machine.

  6. Yves Trlt

    And by the way I’m not saying bittorent or whatever as a protocol should be forbidden, truth is there are ALWAYS centers in piracy, saying the contrary is just hypocrisy or ignorance, mainly due to the need to have a catalog to find what you’re looking for (private forums trackers, whatever).

    Zero piracy nobody cares, exchanging files at school noboy cares or should care, having piracy the default mode to access work is a problem, especially when the only available way for some work, or that the alternatives all want to manage your full bookshelf as well, when the truth is technically you could perfectly buy something on an online shop is a full anonymous mode, and more importantly buy books in different shops ending up on the same bookshelf, the bookshelf holder doing just that, holding your bookshelf with strong privacy constraints (and only references there, no contents, so that looking at your complete bookshelf on any machine no problem, and classifying as you wish as well).

  7. TheGift73

    You stated that Google, Twitter and Facebook companies joined in with the protests.

    Google was the only company of the three that helped, and they did so in a big way, especially behind the scenes.

    Twitter did nothing, it was their users. Twitters CEO also called the blacking out of site ‘Foolish’.


    Facebook were also pretty useless, and their CEO only made a statement coming out about it (about 5hrs into it) after an article on CNET. Again it was the users on those two services that actually voiced their protest.


  8. Nick Carr


    All three of the companies went public with their opposition to the bill, but, yes, you’re absolutely right that their actions in support of the efforts to kill the bill varied greatly.

    Thanks, Nick

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