This is a repost of my article that I published at MINCOV.COM on June 23, 2010.
As negotiations over the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) progress and more and more information becomes available on the potential wording of the agreement, the usual suspects from all camps are happy to share their views on how ACTA might influence our lives. Quite expectedly, the opinions range from alarmist to pacifying, from wholly positive to Armageddonist, from neutral with a tint of “it’s not going far enough” to neutral with a “they’re still not gonna get us” tongue-in-cheek attitude.
How is it possible that one and the same document can attract such radically differing opinions from indisputably educated and intelligent people? The answer is simple. No assessment of a draft international agreement (or any piece of legislation) is possible in abstraction from the values against which such agreement is to be gauged by the assessor.
This is the reason why any legislation regulating welfare handouts is usually subject to heated debates: the same piece of legislation would necessarily receive incompatible ratings from human rights activists, union leaders, free market economists, those who are to distribute the handouts, the homeless, the working poor or the uber-rich. This happens because everyone has their own system of values, however consistent, and it is through the prism of these values that one evaluates all existing or proposed rules.
The answer to all of these questions is – it depends. It depends on the system of values of the person who is to answer these questions. Any attempt to convince others in the “objective rightness” of one’s answers is nothing more than an attempt to inculcate or force one’s system of values upon others. An attempt to find a compromise under the guise of objectivity is either a reflection of one’s subjective system of values or an attempt to shift the Overton window1. so that one of the conflicting values is marginalized as “too much” and the other one gains weight as the window slowly shifts in its direction. I have already provided one Ayn Rand’s quote about the compromise between food and poison in my recent article, Modernization of the Inconceivable. Here is another one:
“The good has nothing to gain from … the evil, except a share of its failures and crimes; the [evil] has everything to gain from the [good]: a share of its achievements and values. An industrialist does not need the help of a burglar in order to succeed; a burglar needs the industrialist’s achievement in order to exist at all. What collaboration is possible between them and to what end?”2..
In the beginning, I had no reservations about ACTA, other than that it would probably not go far enough in establishing a system that would provide an efficient mechanism of enforcement against mass violations of copyright on the Internet. I had no problem dismissing most comments from scholars known for their focus on the so called “user rights” – simply because they are based on the system of values that is irreconcilable with mine.
However, after I spent some time getting myself familiar with various opinions on ACTA, I realized that the one problem I do have with ACTA is that it can be used as a tool to set up global regulation of the Internet going far beyond the framework against copyright infringements.
The idea that the international agreement that seemingly could provide enhanced level of protection to copyright owners whose works are being used on the Internet could also become a tool of oppression (and by oppression I do not mean one’s inability to download a new movie free of charge), seemed like an irreconcilable contradiction. Then again, Ayn Rand’s philosophy came to the rescue. In “Atlas Shrugged”, she wrote: “Contradictions do not exist. Whenever you think that you are facing a contradiction, check your premises. You will find that one of them is wrong.”
This is exactly what I did.
Let me start with setting up the framework of my system of values and beliefs in this regard.
1. Individual rights are an absolute priority. A society that does not fully protect individual rights is a society of masters (whether the master is a dictator or the majority) and slaves.
a. Individual rights are impossible without property.
b. Intellectual property, as a result of one’s creative labour, is no less property than any other type of property.
c. Unlike in the case of tangible property, there is no way to physically prevent infringement of intellectual property.
d. If the infringement of intellectual property does occur and is not voluntarily remedied by the violator, the only recourse the owner of the intellectual property may have against the violator would be through the use of coercive force applied towards the violator – which may either be the force applied by the state (through courts and various enforcement procedures) or by the owner of the intellectual property and its agents (i.e. thugs or journalists).
2. The government’s only proper roles are those designed to protect individual rights through monopoly use of coercive force, i.e. the military, the police and the courts.
a. More government involvement and regulations based on protection of interests of some people or groups at the expense of some others means less freedom to all but the ruling clique.
b. Individual rights cannot be voted away by the majority, no matter how overwhelming.
c. Totalitarianism is totalitarianism, regardless of any allegedly virtuous purposes for which it is being instituted. The state does not have to be run by a murderous dictator for the individuals in that society to not be free. What distinguishes totalitarianism (as the ultimate form of statism) from a free society is that it holds a mortgage on its subjects’ property and lives by sacrificing them to a mysterious common good. The difference between a mixed economy and full totalitarianism is only a difference of degree in lack of freedom. Laissez-faire capitalism, with its recognition of individual rights as the ultimate virtue, is the only truly moral politico-economic system that does not sacrifice, under the barrel of the gun of the government’s enforcement machine, the rights of individuals to the interests of others (be it the dictator, a bureaucrat, a particular group in the society, or the “public” in general).
d. While a big government involved in roles improper for the government is bad enough, a global government is disastrous.
3. Given the ease of dissemination of unauthorized content on the Internet and impracticality of initiating a full-blown litigation over each case of infringement, the only sensible solution, if we are to deal with Internet piracy, is through cooperation of ISPs (both hosting providers and Internet connectivity providers).
4. To create a truly totalitarian state or a global government today, the Internet would necessarily need to be heavily regulated, hence the attempts to force net neutrality down our throats.
a. No totalitarian state has existed without drastically limiting freedom of speech or without serious invasion of private lives of the state’s subjects.
b. A system that allows to control ISPs for the purpose of enforcing intellectual property rights can easily be used to impose overreaching control over the Internet.
5. Internet, as any great invention, can be used for good purposes and for bad purposes. Regulation of the Internet can also be done for good and evil purposes.
6. Ends do not justify the means. It is impossible to save the free market system by abandoning free market principles, President George W. Bush to the contrary notwithstanding1..
So why does there seem to be a contradiction? Those who have read my article, Modernization of the Inconceivable, might have already figured it out. The main problem with ACTA is that it is based on a compromise of underlying principles. Just as a legislative attempt to balance interests of factory owners with those of looters who openly steal from the factory, is nothing more than institutionalized racketeering, an attempt to appease those who claim that they are entitled to “share” the cultural legacy by downloading, without authorization, any packages of ones and zeros, is nothing more than enslavement of creators (and those with whom creators voluntarily trade) by forcing them to give up the product of their labour and investment on terms that are dictated by someone else.
Until the proposed international agreement clearly states that the protection of intellectual property, as its underlying principle, is undertaken for the benefit of whose who create it and invest in it and that it has nothing to do with the interests of the whole “society”, we are doomed to witness the war between various groups lobbying their interests. When the use of one’s property is subjected to undefined interests of the “society”, one is neither the owner nor a free man. If a person is only allowed to have a private home if the society finds it beneficial, then under the same logic, the society can always expropriate the house, if it should find, through an activist claiming to represent the interests of the society, that expropriation would benefit the society even more. This is precisely what happened in the Soviet Russia where if the place you lived at was more spaceous than 9 sq. meters (97 sq. feet) per person, you were considered too rich and the government had the right to let strangers into your “communal” apartment. When it is up to the society (through its elected or self proclaimed representatives) to decide who should own what, one is merely a slave whose property can be taken away at any time in order to meet the demand of the public.
As long as the mechanics of the proposed agreement are designed with the interests of the collective in mind, there will always remain a risk that the enforcement tools created by the agreement will be used for unrelated purposes that are, as will be claimed, equally as important to the society. If even a partial justification for establishing the rules for ISP liability is that it would promote the public interest in the encouragement and dissemination of works of art2., then there is no reason not to use the same system of ISP liability with respect to dissemination of extremist speech, the definition of extremism being, naturally, left to the discretion of anybody who will claim that shutting down of a particular opposing view is in the interests of the country.
That is the problem with the current wording of ACTA, not that lobbyists from the recording industry cannot come to terms with lobbyists from the electronic gadgets industry; or that both these groups are vehemently opposed by activists of the “masses are (or should be) entitled to use copyrighted works as they please” movement. The problem is that because ACTA does not clearly establish the notion that the only concern for protection of intellectual property is the creator and subsequent voluntary investors in the creator’s work, the treaty members are not precluded from approaching the issue of such protection from the perspective of the “common good”, thus allowing a dubious compromise between two conflicting philosophies.
That ACTA has more chances of being implemented in the world because of its wording being vague enough to accommodate irreconcilable interpretations, is not good enough. If one scholar says that ACTA establishes a three-strikes-you’re-out rule and another scholar says that all it does is that it confirms contributory liability of ISPs, which liability is lifted subject to the ISP’s reasonable cooperation, it means that the same text may equally reasonably be interpreted as providing a global government with a tool of shutting off dissent and establishing total control over who does what on the Internet. What is attempted to be sold as a virtue of ACTA, that it offers a balanced approach to various groups of interests, is precisely its most important flaw.
As soon as the treaty’s purpose becomes to establish a fair balance of interests (based on whichever group succeeds at extorting favours from the drafters and other parties), the implementation of the treaty would always lie in the domain of re-evaluation of what balance is “fair” under the circumstances (the circumstances being, of course, the relative power of various interest groups in a particular country at a particular time). This is nothing more than warfare between various gangs as to which one of them has more power over the others.
Those who understand the importance of intellectual property should not lull themselves into believing that everything is going their way simply because lobbyists from their camp succeeded at squeezing in a rule that would tip the balance in their favour. As long as the protection is not based on a morally consistent principle, there is no guarantee that the balance will not tip the other way tomorrow or that the enforcement mechanism created by ACTA is not used for purposes radically different from those that it will have been introduced for.
The only way to ensure that an international treaty provides a solution to combat Internet piracy without becoming a tool of oppression is to so word the treaty that it would not leave any doubt as to the reasons why intellectual property is granted protection. And that reason should be stated clearly and proudly – intellectual property is being protected because no one has a right to use the results of another’s creative labour, other than on terms put forward by the creator or the subsequent copyright owner who voluntarily purchases said rights from the creator. It has nothing to do with whether the society benefits from such protection.
Unless the collective interest is left out of the equation, there will always remain a risk of this collective interest being used to enslave everyone into submission to whoever claims to be the representative of the society at any given moment. This is precisely the way all collectivist dictatorships of the past have seized power. It should not be forgotten that no dictator has come to power on the promises to murder millions of citizens in their own country. All the atrocities of collectivist regimes (be it Lenin, Stalin, Hitler, Mussolini, Mao, Khmers Rouges, Che or other blood-thirsty monsters) that are presently being laundered by the left, have been accomplished in the name of the common good.
I am not saying that ACTA will necessarily lead to the world holocaust. What I am saying is that the lack of clarity in the reasons for its adoption would make both IP supporters and haters guilty in the demise of our freedoms. The difference, however, is that the haters’ goal is clear – they openly advocate for the submission of creators and investors to the interests of the “society”. It is the position of many IP supporters that is most inglorious: by trying to carve out a piece of the pie for creators, they are prepared to do away with the philosophical basis for the protection. By throwing the creators to the mercy of the collective, even if it benefits the creators in the short run, all that they are achieving is that the paradigm slowly shifts to the one that IP haters embrace – that there should be no protection other than that which benefits the society as a whole.
2. Ayn Rand, “The Anatomy of Compromise” as published in “Capitalism, the Unknown Ideal”
2. Theberge v. Galerie d’Art du Petit Champlain, 2002 SCC 34,  2 S.C.R. 336, 210 D.L.R. (4th) 385, at para. 30.
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