On Piracy and Privacy

02/10/2012 11:59 am ET | Updated Apr 11, 2012
  • Greg Goldberg Assistant Sociology Professor, Wesleyan University; Musician

Internet users scored an important victory last month in the battle to defeat the SOPA/PIPA. Looking ahead, users should be aware that the next fight may not be over Internet freedom, but rather privacy.

Like other anti-piracy initiatives, SOPA/PIPA was designed to protect the economic interests of the content industry -- companies like Walt Disney, Time Warner, News Corporation and Viacom, who make money through selling music, movies, news, and other content whose copyrights they own. Unfortunately for these companies, sharing is the ethos and the social glue of a new generation that has grown up with the Internet and expects unfettered access to content. This expectation has largely rendered obsolete commercial content providers' business models. It's not that kids-these-days don't respect intellectual property, it's that they don't recognize it at all. No amount of ethical finger-wagging or legislative maneuvering will change this.

It would be naïve, however, to see the shelving of SOPA/PIPA as a victory against commercial media. As the brouhaha over SOPA/PIPA makes clear, there are multiple media industries, and their interests are increasingly at odds. While the content industry grasps at straws, new media companies like Facebook, Google, and Twitter -- call them the participation industry -- are steadily building a profitable empire of social networks, blogging platforms, online communities, and other services and applications. Where commercial content providers failed to step up, new media companies stepped in, developing products and business models that support the unfettered reproduction of content.

The campaign against SOPA/PIPA owes much of its success to the organized efforts of the participation industry, in concert with non-profits like Wikipedia, Internet users, and free speech advocates. Together these groups have set the once mighty content industry back on its heels. However, at this juncture it would be wise to remember that the participation and content industries share something important in common: they are both commercial enterprises, with investors and shareholders to please. In the Internet age, there is little doubt that participation is big business.

The commercial interests of new media companies should give users pause. What is now a happy alliance between users and these companies could quickly sour -- or have we already forgotten about Facebook's history of allowing advertisers to access users' data without their consent, or Google's tendency to play fast-and-loose with users' data when introducing new services? These infractions are not anomalies. As Facebook's imminent IPO illustrates, new media companies are sitting on a goldmine -- the data users freely contribute when they click on Google search results or post links to their Facebook walls is inordinately valuable to advertisers, marketers, product developers, and even government agencies like the New York Police Department, who began monitoring social networking activity in 2011. Whether new media companies will be able to realize the value of this data without infringing on users' privacy remains to be seen.

New media services are the primary tools through which many users now conduct and document their social lives. When we learn, work, and play, it is increasingly online. This should also give users pause, as it has become difficult for dissatisfied participants to withdraw from services on which they have come to rely, and in which they may have invested considerable quantities of time and data. This is not simply a question of habit or custom. Applications like Facebook and Google are attractive, in part, because of the network effect -- the more people that use them, the more value they offer to each user. When users oppose the privacy policies of services they enjoy, quitting may be an untenable prospect insofar as there are few if any viable alternatives. As a result of the network effect, smaller companies like Diaspora and DuckDuckGo cannot offer the value to users that behemoths like Google and Facebook do, even when the service they offer is superior. When Google institutes a privacy overhaul in March, what are 350 million Gmail users to do?

In the battle against SOPA/PIPA, Internet users got a glimpse of how powerful the participation industry has become. As users happily support the freedom of the Wikipedias of the world, they should remember that the interests of new media companies might not always align with their own. Users want to share, but they also want privacy. When it comes to data mining, tracking, surveillance, and other infringements on privacy, users' erstwhile allies may wield a newfound political power against them.