This past Monday, California Congressman Howard Berman convened a field hearing in Van Nuys, California to address the topic of digital piracy. Rep. Berman represents California’s 28th district, which includes Northern Hollywood, so it should come as no surprise that he rarely misses an opportunity to give voice to his constituents’ concerns regarding piracy–and this hearing was no exception. As Ars Technica notes, the hearing found Berman trotting out a number of apocryphal figures regarding the damage done by Internet piracy, many of which are easily debunked using little more than simple logic. Not wanting to be outdone, however, director and Director’s Guild of America vice president Steven Soderbergh made a vaguely-worded overture to France’s proposed “three strikes” law. “Litigation is slow and the Internet is fast, so it doesn’t make sense to ask the government to be our police,” Soderbergh said. “What we would like is to be deputized to solve our own problems, to be granted the kind of pull-down and inspection abilities being proposed in France so we can act swiftly and fairly on our own behalf.” What exactly is Soderbergh advocating? Even he doesn’t seem to know. When asked for clarification by New York Times reporter Michael Cieply, “Mr. Soderbergh stumbled a bit and said he was not quite sure how it might work”.
While it’s not entirely clear what Soderbergh was suggesting, we can only assume that he was referring to France’s proposed three strikes law, which, if implemented, would establish a new government agency to investigate file-sharing offenses reported by copyright holders. Unlike similar laws that we’ve seen in New Zealand and elsewhere, the French law would require that allegations of infringement are evaluated by a government agency before anyone is kicked off of the Internet. While this fact makes France’s plan slightly more reasonable than other three strikes proposals, the proposed law is still totally preposterous given France’s strong democratic tradition. Better yet, it’s also possibly illegal. Some have suggested that the law would violate the French constitution and it most certainly defies the EU’s authority, considering that the European Parliament recently voted to ban its member states from adopting three strikes laws, calling them “…measures conflicting with civil liberties and human rights and with the principles of proportionality, effectiveness and dissuasiveness”.
Regardless of what Mr. Soderbergh–or U2’s manager, Paul McGuinness, who recently wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian entitled, “Why France has the solution to online piracy”–might think, the people of France seem to have their own opinions on the matter. The three strikes bill, which was largely expected to sail through the French Parliament, was roundly rejected yesterday in a decisive 25 to 15 vote. If those numbers seem low, they are–as The New York Times notes, “most of the 577-member legislature decided not to show up — an indication, analysts said, of how unpopular the proposal was among voters in France.”
Jérémie Zimmermann, co-founder and spokesperson for French activist group La Quadrature du Net credited the public’s swift response and online activism. “This is a formidable victory for all citizens. This vote shows that it is still possible to make oneself heard. It is a fantastic example of how to use the Net to fight against those who are trying to control it,” he said. “Individual liberties, in the end, have not been sacrificed to try to preserve the corporate interests of some obsolete industries.”
Just as the New Zealand government did when its three strikes mandate was abandoned, the office of French President Nicolas Sarkozy has vowed to try its luck again with an amended version of the bill. And as is the case in New Zealand, it seems unlikely that they’ll find success given both the intensity of the public outcry and the breadth of the international press’ coverage of the botched initiative. The lesson here is that citizens will not stand idly by as massive corporations are given the power to criminalize and persecute Internet users without due process. Why? As usual, Boing Boing‘s Corey Doctorow says it best (from an opinion piece printed in the Guardian):
I mean, it’s not as though internet access is something important right?
In the past week, I’ve only used the internet to contact my employers around the world, my MP in the UK, to participate in a European Commission expert proceeding, to find out why my infant daughter has broken out in tiny pink polka-dots, to communicate with a government whistle-blower who wants to know if I can help publish evidence of official corruption, to provide references for one former student (and follow-up advice to another), book my plane tickets, access my banking records, navigate the new Home Office immigration rules governing my visa, wire money to help pay for the headstone for my great uncle’s grave in Russia, and to send several Father’s Day cards (and receive some of my own).
The internet is only that wire that delivers freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, and freedom of the press in a single connection. It’s only vital to the livelihood, social lives, health, civic engagement, education and leisure of hundreds of millions of people (and growing every day).
This trivial bit of kit is so unimportant that it’s only natural that we equip the companies that brought us Police Academy 11, Windows Vista, Milli Vanilli and Celebrity Dancing With the Stars with wire-cutters that allow them to disconnect anyone in the country on their own say-so, without proving a solitary act of wrongdoing.
There’s a reason why, thus far, we’ve only seen three strikes initiatives successfully implemented as the result of opaque processes like backroom negotiations and out-of court settlements: as long as citizens remain vigilant and active, three strikes schemes will never be tolerated in democratic societies. Of course, given that it takes Big Content about five years to figure out that it’s barking up the wrong tree, chances are high that we’ll be fending off three strikes proposals around the globe for years to come.
As for Steven Soderbergh? I would advise him not to quit his day job.